At its surface, Dan Gilroy’s debut feature Nightcrawler provides terribly pedestrian commentary on the moral vicissitudes of so-called modern media sensationalism. When freelance video-journalist Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) first meets jaded TV executrix Nina Romnia (Rene Russo), the latter describes her professional-aesthetic ideal to be “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat slit.” Nina wants ratings, and a combination of graphic violence, fear-mongering and attractive news anchors is how you get them. Lou understands this on an intuitive level, and eagerly sets to work perfecting his craft as a “nightcrawler.”
According to this view, the media is just aching to beam violence and tragedy into our homes, not to mention vague political narratives trading in racism and classism. But while the media is corrupt, it’s really just a symptom of our own spiritual sickness; the real villain of this quaint story is our own morbid society and its enduring cowardice.
Indeed, to many viewers, including this writer, Nightcrawler might seem a bit overeager to question where the line between local news and snuff film is. But in fact, this movie has a far more provocative set of issues to deal with, and perhaps questions whether that presumed line exists at all.
To begin, let’s take a look at the film’s unique protagonist, Lou Bloom. Unlike most major films these days and to a much greater extent than the various ethical indulgences of television showrunners like David Chase, Matthew Weiner, and Vince Gillian, this movie is perfectly happy to structure his narrative around a character that is quite one-dimensionally unlikable. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we see him hurting others indiscriminately and spouting narcissistic platitudes about his own professional potential. He’s a creep, and an inconsequential one at that.
But herein lies the first signal of the film’s unusual sophistication. In short, the film’s treatment of sociopathy is spot on, depicting it as a set of character traits that so often masquerade as ambition, assertiveness, and shrewd rational objectivity. For our purposes, the key to Lou’s character is the way he relates to language.
For a specifically Lacanian perspective (forgive me) on how the film does this with Lou, some comments from Zizek’s How to Read Lacan are instructive:
“The sociopath’s use of language paradoxically matches the standard commonsense notion of language as a purely instrumental means of communication, as signs that transmit meanings. He uses language, he is not caught up in it, and he is insensitive to the performative dimension.
“This determines the sociopath’s attitude toward morality. While he is able to discern the moral rules that regulate social interaction, and even act morally in so far as he establishes that it suits his purpose, he lacks the ‘gut feeling’ of right and wrong, the notion that one just cannot do some things, regardless of the external social rules.
“In short, the sociopath truly practices the notion of morality developed by utilitarianism. For him, morality is a theory one learns and follows, not something one substantially identifies with. Doing evil is a mistake in calculation, not a guilty act.”
This is precisely what is at work with Lou Bloom. He is unsettling as a person because he appears to see things so clearly, yet fully misses everything that the viewer deems important. Lou isolates and identifies the moving parts of his environment with impressive precision, and manipulates each of these parts with forethought and intelligence. Yet he fails for even a moment to resemble what might be called a well-adjusted human being.
The reason for this startling defect in his character is precisely what Zizek describes. Lou is detached, constitutively so, from the very incalculable mysteriousness of language. He doesn’t understand that language is actually nothing like the cold algebraic instrument we sometimes suppose it to be, but rather has a deep emotional hold on us such that one simply does not say certain things, no matter how much sense they make.
In other words, he doesn’t have proper access to what Lacan calls the symbolic order. It’s not that he has not lost touch with it fully, as in the case of a psychotic. He knows it’s there, and he can still reach out and touch it. The problem is that he is not properly installed within it (nor it within him, if you prefer).
This detachment from the symbolic order is what situates him so beautifully within the specifics of Gilroy’s media-moralist plot. Toward the middle of the film, Lou is talking to Nina and is suddenly stunned by the cityscape backdrop used in the station’s daily broadcast. With genuine awe, he says of the cardboard illusion what might be considered the movie’s fundamental thesis:
“It looks so real on TV.”
Consider this statement for a moment. For Lou, things aren’t real until they’re on TV. We see this in his amoral behavior and general lack of emotion as he hovers over dead bodies with his camera.
The primary experience of Lou’s external world is not “reality” at all, but rather a kind of pre-reality that has yet to be fully integrated into the symbolic order. This integration is achieved only through filmic representation, with a “screen” sitting between his personal subjectivity and the outside world’s acknowledgement of what counts as objective reality.
It is because of his sociopathic detachment from the symbolic order that the film’s narrative takes on such a striking metaphoric tenor, with the process of symbolization taken up within the seedy day-to-day logistics of an exploitative local news program. (In Lacanian terms, the news program is, like language, an agent of social reality insofar as it facilitates our movement from the Real to the Symbolic.)
This is to say, our experience is ultimately only “reality” once situated within a certain fantasy frame, i.e. within language. The film’s cynical metaphor for this fantasy frame is the lowbrow local news program, with its tastelessly curated and cheaply narrativized segments. For Lacan, and more broadly speaking to what we discussed above, the ultimate fantasy frame is linguistic structure itself, composed as it is of symbols, which are nothing but made-up stand-ins for what we are always trying (and failing) to fully communicate to one another.
As for the film’s formal technique, Gilroy impresses with his frequent use of a brilliant screen-within-a-screen motif. Some of the most striking and emotionally jarring scenes in the film involve not Lou’s disturbing primary experiences (i.e. the many scenes of extreme violence and destruction that he witnesses directly) but rather the re-watching of these experiences on a screen within the film.
For instance, consider the dual depictions of the home invasion sequence. First, we have Lou witnessing it directly while filming it, and second, we have the live broadcast of Lou’s footage on TV. Both sequences contain the same grisly images, yet they feel completely different.
It doesn’t seem as “real” to Lou (or to the viewer, for that matter) while it is actually happening because it is fully caught up in Lou’s subjectivity. We cannot fully appreciate its morbidity yet, and thus the murders are somehow not as disturbing as they should be. But later, in what may be the film’s most dazzlingly executed sequence, things change completely.
The second time around we’re overcome with the desire to turn away. Even though the images are partially censored, which one would think should dampen their emotional impact, somehow the opposite is true. By viewing it on a screen within a screen and with the news anchor’s superficially somber narration, the images uncannily take on a legitimately obscene quality, as if it is now clearly so wrong to be ogling them. In other words, it is only after the primary “real” experience has been in a sense fictionalized can we begin to understand it.
Once these events have been symbolically integrated, placed within a social context, and fully in view of the eyes of the Big Other of language, this violence feels deeply shameful to look at. Why? It’s because symbolization is all about meaning. Without it, there is none. That, in spite of all the ostensible “finger-waving” the film does, is what Nightcrawler shows us.
If the reader will allow a concluding expansion, consider another embodiment of Lacan’s Big Other: God. Just as we constitute social reality via Other as language, so to do we constitute it via the gripping omnipresence of what is called God. In both cases, our terrifying and meaningless subjective experience is tamed through a neutral matrix that is fundamentally alien to us. What is God? What is language? The answer is the same: “the agency for which one has to maintain [an] appearance.”
In this sense, Marilyn Manson provides a concise idiom for Nightcrawler’s quite complex treatment of our television-obsessed society. The problem is not that we’ve inappropriately put God on TV or that we’ve replaced God with TV; rather, it’s that both God and television are but different aspects of our relation to the Big Other.
Quite literally, “God is in the TV.”
For more like this, follow @syvology on Twitter.