I’d like to talk to you about something I discovered. Film noir is dead as a genre. It has been replaced by something I’m calling film neón.
Film noir was defined by its shadows and darkness. The people were hard living blue-collar employees who thought they understood the situation perfectly but were often wrong. The women were still basic housewives who were trying to game society. They were often morality plays, so evil was punished and there was a very strong sense of morality.
Film neón is awash with the streetlights and skyscrapers in modern cities. The people who inhabit these cities only vaguely resemble people. They often don’t have much to say, and when they do, their dialogue is basically repeated speeches they may have heard on infomercials. The women are in actual positions of power and independent (rather than being married to the right man), but are still the driving force behind the male character’s motivation. In fact, the women can resemble the sort of life they want. Morality is very ambiguous – the heroes are often equally bad, but are trying to fight for the right thing.
It’s a trend that’s been growing. Most of the qualities were set by Michael Mann’s Collateral. Drive is another example, and even the James Bond films Casino Royale and Skyfall has a lot to say about the emerging genre.
But Nightcrawler is the perfect example of film neón. It is one of the best films of 2014 for illustrating exactly what is so important about the genre. Everything about the film, from the characters to the setting to the structure, is incredibly well done. And it manages to ignite some important questions about the world we live in, where cell phone video often reveals important information that news organizations can ignore.
So far this year, I haven’t singled out any actor who deserves an Oscar. I would like to amend that and declare that Jake Gyllenhaal deserves to win Best Actor for his portrayal of Lou Bloom. Bloom is a man willing to do anything to get ahead, and is able to justify his actions with key phrases you’ve probably heard the upper management at your company say.
Even when we’re introduced to him, he’s stealing copper to sell to a construction crew. Then he finds someone else filming a crash scene, and is drawn into the world of freelance videographers (or “nightcrawlers”) who take footage at crime scenes and sell them to local news stations.
Bloom runs full steam ahead. He buys a camera and police scanner and hires an assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed) whom he verbally abuses with his business buzzwords. He even forms a relationship with local news director Nina (Rene Russo…yes, seriously, Rene Russo. I don’t know what rock she crawled under after 2002, but the filmmakers found her for this movie) whom he constantly threatens not to sell footage to unless she has sex with him. And, despite everything he does, he is very successful in his pursuits.
He is the greatest film neón character to date – a facsimile of a man who doesn’t quite know everything but thinks he does. I’m not sure how Jake Gyllenhaal was able to capture the spirit of this YouTube Iago, but he did so. It was amazing seeing him rattle off all the business buzz words he’s learned from online courses. He sounds confident and sure. I won’t even say it’s a disguise. I would say it’s an idea of who he thinks he is. He relished each moment, the way only Lou could have.
But there’s so much more to Nightcrawler than Gyllenhaal’s performance. The film is ultimately about how much media is willing to compete for a much smaller audience. Lou is terrible, but he is responding to a demand that the news stations have. There’s a vague feeling of Network in Rene Russo, where she constantly demands death for the camera. Network, you’ll recall, had Faye Dunaway insisting that the TV station fast track a show about a radical black power group to increase ratings. Russo has graphic footage of a home invasion, and puts it on prime time. She only pauses to ask if it’s legal to show.
Is this what we want? Apparently, judging by what trends on YouTube. The only time Russo ever pauses is when Lou haggles over the price. Rick only ever demands that he get more money (Lou insists that Rick is an “intern,” something that mirrors pretty much every media company today). Everything is driven by selfish gains. There is no villain in the film outside of the character’s own, selfish desires. And (spoiler) they get away with it.
What does this mean? Well, ultimately that’s up to the viewer. I think that the film’s seductive film neón quality makes the situation seem that much more acceptable. The third act is a real thrill ride, but it’s a situation that could have been avoided. Do we need to keep placing ourselves in dangerous situations just for a few thrills? If you ask any number of viral stars, the answer is “absolutely.” After seeing Nightcrawler, I’m not convinced.
As I said at the start, Nightcrawler is one of the year’s best films. It is an important chapter in a growing genre of films. But it’s very engaging on its own and has a lot to say about professional media in the YouTube era. There are a lot of Lous in the world that are going to have a very worrisome impact. Maybe you’re one of them. I hope you at least stop to think about what you’re doing.