In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), cultural critic Neil Postman wrote, “Our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.” The nature of both viewers and creators of media content is the subject of what may be the most overlooked film of 2014, Nightcrawler. There have been many great films about the media, several of which were years or decades ahead of their era. Films like A Face in the Crowd (1957), Ace in the Hole (1951), Network (1976), and Wag the Dog (1997) have only become more relevant with time. Nightcrawler is another one of these films that we should take seriously immediately instead of looking back ten or twenty years later only to realize how topical this story truly is.
During the months leading up to the Oscars earlier this year, media was buzzing about many films but discussion of Nightcrawler was largely nonexistent. It may be because too few take Jake Gyllenhall’s work seriously, maybe it is because the media does not like a film that forces itself to look in the mirror, or it could just be that too many think the sleek views of Los Angeles were overdone. Regardless, at the center of the film is an important cultural adage that is often joked about but is in need of serious consideration: if it bleeds it leads.
After filming the fiery aftermath of a car wreck, these words are spoken by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a current ‘nightcrawler’ always on the prowl for grisly footage to sell to bidding networks. The other end of the conversation is an awestruck Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhall) who is desperate, looking for work, and just crazy enough to push social and moral boundaries to get the job done. This is why “nightcrawling” is the best job for him. Louis quickly jumps in eagerly, getting a cheap camera and police scanner, rushing crime scenes, and learning the tricks of the trade. After making a connection with a desperate producer, Nina (Rene Russo), Louis begins going to great lengths to obtain the desired footage.
The “if it bleeds it leads” maxim is dissected in full force as Louis tampers with crime scenes to get the most marketable shot. Moving bodies? No big deal. Trespassing? Deal with it. Withholding evidence of a murder? Sure, if it will make the story last longer. Nightcrawler takes a close look at not only what makes the news but also how news stations obtain their stories. If the bloody happenings of the day lead the news, it will only encourage people to see death and destruction as the most important news instead of focusing on more positive stories.
While Nightcrawler is a fictional film, nightcrawling is a real job. This is worth thinking about more directly. Writer/director Dan Gilroy worked with freelance videographers who chase police cars and ambulances to scenes were the cameras being to roll – the more blood that spills the more dollars collected. It is no surprise and certainly nothing new that this type of work exists, but the film asks us what does nightcrawling and the footage it perpetuates do to our culture? Does the close-up view of a bleeding gunshot victim help the community in any way or does it just fetishize violence? For Louis his footage just equals cash and his obsessive nature allows him to focus on the filming process while overlooking social and moral boundaries.
Nina, on the other hand, is just as obsessive as Louis but her focus is on ratings. She knows that audiences flock to gruesome footage and in order to increase her ratings she must out-gore the competing networks. Nina feeds Louis’ obsessive nature by emphasizing that viewers are so desensitized the video must be really graphic or it won’t grab viewers. Particular interest is often reserved for scenes so grisly they need approval of lawyers before airing. Such adamant focus on violent scenes only pushes Louis further. The films begs us to ask, where does this stop? Is there a line that cannot be crossed? Nightcrawler’s answer is no – acquire footage at all costs.
This attitude leads to Louis going further and further with each scene he films. In the beginning, the footage is of simple car accidents or shootings well after the fact. However, the drive to get the best footage pushes Louis to navigate a system that allows him to beat the police to crime scenes. Of course, Nina loves Louis’ dedication to obtaining the most horrific of content. Postman argues, “Many newscasters do not appear to grasp the meaning of what they are saying, and some hold to a fixed and ingratiating enthusiasm as they report on earthquakes, mass killings, and other disasters.” Louis and Nina share a lack of concern for the people involved in the stories filmed. If it bleeds it leads…with bloodthirsty enthusiasm.
When Nightcrawler ends, however, the narrative and visuals stick with you and does not go down easy. Like any great film, Nightcrawler holds up after multiple viewings and offers an important commentary on contemporary news culture. The film echoes Postman’s observation that “viewers, after all, are partners with the newscasters in the ‘now…this’ culture.” The importance here is not just with those who capture the news, but the fact that it’s the grim stories that attract viewers and will presumably save Nina’s show from a ratings free-fall.
With current discussions in Hollywood often trending with hip ideologies of the day, we should embrace a film that provokes a discussion on something that impacts more people than almost any other form of media – the nightly news. Postman observes, “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore…how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.” Generations have been raised by watching the evening news after dinner only to see grim stories about murder, rape, protest and outrage, the most gruesome car accident of the day, and anything else heartbreaking they can use to get attention. Nightcrawler reignites this conversation for the 21st century. If it bleeds…