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Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the film Nightcrawler is this dark decade in a nutshell

Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom, from the film Nightcrawler, may be the movie character of the year.
Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom, from the film Nightcrawler, may be the movie character of the year.
Open Road
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Lou Bloom is a creature of the 2010s, through and through.

Lou, the character Jake Gyllenhaal plays in the darkly funny, terrifically smart little film Nightcrawler, at first seems like a simple riff on someone like Gordon Gekko from Wall Street or Patrick Bateman from American Psycho — a sociopath who has absorbed the lessons of his culture so thoroughly that they have become the blood running through his veins. But look a little closer, and there's a desperation to Lou that feels very post-Great Recession. He's a man who was told he would be rich, and now he's not. What is he to do with that?

On its surface, this is a rather ridiculous notion. Nightcrawler often feels like a film that was written in 1990, the script pulled out of mothballs when writer-director Dan Gilroy was able to secure funding to finally make it. At the center of the script (and the film's universe) is local television news, a format that decreases in importance with every year. The movie's dark satire of concepts like "if it bleeds, it leads" can seem very simplistic. And it occasionally seems as if the internet simply doesn't exist within the film's universe at all.

But that's because Gilroy and Gyllenhaal are after bigger fish with Lou. Here's a character who's completely absorbed corporate doublespeak. He talks as if he's a memo trying to hide that it's announcing company-wide layoffs, and he often talks purely in buzzwords. He is a man of a world where everybody stepped up to the economic brink, then stepped back, knowing just how easy it would be to fall and quoting bland platitudes to themselves to be certain they'll be fine.

A great year for film performances

I found 2014 a very good year for film performances, with even movies I didn't particularly like occasionally featuring an unlikely star turn or character part that made up for other problems. And I thought Gyllenhaal's was perhaps the best performance of that year.

What put Gyllenhaal either at or near the top of my list of great performances is just how unexpected Lou is, coming from him. He's a very good looking man, but he's reinvented himself into a kind of lizard creature here, his pupils wide to absorb whatever light they can find in post-midnight Los Angeles. His arc, in some ways, is about prey learning to become predator, and it's impressive to chart just how great Gyllenhaal is at making both sides of that equation seem deeply unsettling.

At its heart, Nightcrawler is a "what is this guy going to do next?" movie. The plot is largely simple: Lou finds out about freelance cameramen who go looking for moments of human misery — the aftermath of violent crimes and accidents, mostly — that he can then turn around for the early morning news on local stations. He quickly proves adept at the task, crossing boundaries and putting his camera right in victims' faces, until he's shooed away like an insect. He skitters off, but not too far, lest he miss the next great shot.

From there, it's a simple question of just how much Lou will manipulate tragic situations to his own advantage. The answer is almost always "as much as he possibly can," but Gilroy's script keeps upping the stakes, with a plane crash here, a home invasion there. There's a rich vein of pulp running through the film, one that keeps it from becoming too repetitive.

When the movie opens, Lou is barely scraping by, thanks to theft of copper wire. He tries to con his way into a job with the man he sells that wire to, but he's rebuffed with the simple fact that he's a thief, and why would any employer trust a man he knew to be a thief? It's meant to give us a clearer picture of the movie's "hero," but it also suggests how Lou will learn to survive. If he's going to make the millions he thinks he's owed, then he's going to have to learn how to better hide.

The face of the 2010s

The film's most bravura scene is one where Lou has dinner with Nina, an early morning news producer played by Rene Russo. The scene is something like a date, but it's also clear Lou and Nina have very different expectations from the evening. He propositions her, but not in the sense of seduction. No, he's trying to have sex with her as a kind of business transaction. She rebuffs him. He keeps at it. She eventually gets so weary that a kind of deal is closed between them.

The film largely keeps whatever relationship they consummate offscreen after that. It's very canny about the way it's always focused on Lou as he moves to whatever his next goal is. But this is as close as we've seen him to the person he truly is. He doesn't really want to have sex with Nina because he loves her, or for companionship, or even because he wants to know exactly where his footage will end up every time he pulls out his camera.

No, he wants to have sex with Nina, because he wants power over her. He thinks it's owed to him. And in that moment, so much of what makes Lou such a great character — and such the perfect exemplar of this decade — swims into view.

See, Lou is a white man, played by a handsome white man who's obscured his good looks a bit but can't hide them entirely. And as such, he believes he's owed some sort of fortune from the world at large, owed a kind of respect from those he meets, simply because of the status he would have had in past American decades. He uses the corporate speak he endlessly babbles as a kind of protective shield, then, as a way to connect himself to other white men, who have been much more successful at closing their deals, at vaulting their own corporate ladders.

And because Lou is who he is, because he looks the way he does, he's able to just keep coming, to never be shut down in the way he should be or the way he deserves. Because he's a white man, he can get away with saying and doing things that anybody else might be rebuffed or arrested for. And because he's a white man, he always feels relatively confident that he's not going to get in trouble when he, say, stages a dramatic police chase.

Nightcrawler, on its surface, is a relatively straightforward thriller, built around a slightly improbable but very effective main character, a man who starts as an antihero and plunges straight ahead toward villainy. It takes place in a world that doesn't resemble our own, and it makes no real effort to fix that discrepancy.

But, then, it doesn't need to. Nightcrawler isn't a realistic story. Nightcrawler is a parable of bitter, burbling resentment, of people who think they deserve certain things just because of the accident of birth, and of a society that is simply too tired to deny them everything. Lou Bloom isn't going to win because he's particularly intelligent, or because he's a great speaker, or even because he has a brilliant idea. He's a leech, who uses other people to get ahead, over and over again. Lou Bloom is going to win because men like Lou Bloom always win. And what's more 2010s than that?