One time, early in my journalism career, I had an argument with a newsroom colleague over a paper’s coverage of a house fire in which a man’s family burned to death. The picture they ran was of the guy’s reaction the moment he learned his family was gone. I disagreed vehemently with that decision to run the photo. That he was in suffering was not newsworthy. That his family was gone, was. Show the burning house, if you must. But spare this man his dignity. My colleague argued just as strongly that there was not only a journalistic duty to show the suffering man, but that the picture was worthy of a Pulitzer, the profession’s highest honor. I remember thinking, if that’s what it takes to get a Pulitzer, then I don’t think I’d ever want one. Not every journalist would agree with that. But there are enough who do, and a whole lot more too lazy to care one way or the other. Under the right direction, that can turn the news into something far less that what it should be: propaganda, entertainment, or vile exhibitionism.
Nightcrawler is a kind of neo-noir thriller that’s all about the lengths terrible people will go to succeed in the television news industry. It focuses on the stringers who listen in on police scanners and then race to the scene of accidents, crime scenes, and other places where tragic things have happened to get the most raw video footage of it as possible. Then they sell it to local TV news stations who need juicy video to punch up the night’s news broadcast. The whole thing is a lot like how the paparazzi operate, instead of looking for shots of a celebrity walking their dog, these stringers are looking for a mother of two who just got shot in the head. These guys are living embodiment of the old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Our story follows Lou Bloom, a thief and sociopath who discovers the stringer profession, boosts a bike to get a camera and police scanner, and because he has absolutely no moral center whatsoever, proves to be especially good at this freelance news thing. pretty soon, he is cutting the brakes of his rivals and filming their severely injured bodies as a kind of revenge, re-positioning the bodies at crime scenes, and not calling the cops while crime scenes are in progress because he knows he can get better footage if he manipulates things just a little while longer. Calling the cops on some bad guys isn’t good enough. Calling the cops when the bad guys are more likely to get into a shootout with them…now that’s worth something.
Lou’s rise through the news world at first shocks his station manager, Nina, whose ratings have been hurting, so she needs surefire content. Any qualms she has over Lou’s footage quickly give way to the audience it brings, so she’s only too happy to give him an open license to produce as much horrorshow for her as possible. Even when he openly abuses and exploits her, she still keeps him around, awestruck by how easily he can remove any consideration of human decency from his work.
This is as grim an assessment of the news business as you’re ever likely to see. There is no noble mission to the news in Nightcrawler. Those who produce it have little objection to the cruelty they are peddling, and when they do offer weak objection to Lou’s methods, they’re content to quickly look the other way.
Nightcrawler is the kind of movie where everybody is so sketchy that you kind of want to wash your hands after seeing it. The whole thing is a kind of moral ratchet as we see Lou progressively move deeper and deeper into dark territory, but we never get a sense that Lou is undergoing any kind of transformation. When we first meet him, we know he’s a bad guy. His ascension through the nighttime TV news business is a chronicle of him discovering just how far this line of work will let Lou be Lou. Pretty damned far, as it turns out.
The moment of truth occurs near the end, when Lou and his hapless assistant Rick let a pair of violent criminals roam free in the hopes of setting up a confrontation between them and the police. When the whole thing inevitably devolves into bloodshed, Rick reacts with what little humanity he has left. Lou simply reacts. He does some pretty unforgiveable things in that scene, and as we see what kind of evil bastard Lou really is, a dark revelation hits us: at least he’s just taking ghoulish video footage of tragedies. If it weren’t for this scummy job to give him the sense of purpose, there’s no telling what this guy would do to occupy his time.
But that’s not even the worst part about it. It’s what comes after, when we realize that Lou might be bad, but worse are those who keep writing him checks to give him a reason for doing what he’s doing. At the very end, when he’s instructing a team of fresh interns on how to get the footage he sells, he does it with the slick parlance of a sales manager or a corporate team leader. You get a vision of what it looks like right before a cancer begins to spread. That Lou has made what he does feel so normal is a chilling reminder of how any profession can be turned into something monstrous. Especially the ones that were never meant to be.