There’s a notion in popular culture that all sociopaths are serial-killing outsiders, but research has shown that most of the empathy-impaired are actually quite capable of blending into civilized society, though they usually gravitate towards certain lines of work that afford them little accountability and plenty of power. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that this relatively rare genetic trait would have long since died out if this wasn’t the case.
And while there are a handful of stories that offer a more realistic take on sociopaths (with even American Psycho depicting Patrick Bateman as a high-ranking office worker and possible CEO), I’d argue that one of the greatest cinematic psychos isn’t even from a horror movie. Naturally, I’m referring to the protagonist of the 2014 thriller Nightcrawler, a mean bit of journalistic satire that explores just how capitalism can reward anti-social behaviour.
Originally inspired by the real-world photojournalist Weegee, who infamously pioneered the practice of using a police scanner to reach crime scenes before they were publicly announced, the premise for the movie that would become Nightcrawler changed once veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy came into contact with Los Angeles’ professional stringer scene.
Fascinated by how ratings-hungry TV stations encouraged an obsession with violent crime, Gilroy slowly developed a story about an antihero attempting to rise through the ranks of an unsavory profession. This led to the creation of Lou Bloom, a voracious capitalist with no real backstory to justify his cruel and calculating nature. The idea of a twisted success story centered around a character with no redeeming value ended up attracting Jake Gyllenhaal to the project, with the actor also becoming the film’s co-producer and taking a hands-on approach during shooting.
In the finished film, which ended up being helmed by Gilroy himself in his directorial debut, we follow criminal Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) as he discovers the stringer profession and attempts to get rich by selling graphic footage of crimes and accidents to a local news station. With his recordings becoming more and more lucrative, Lou’s ruthless nature is let loose as he attempts to outdo his previous work – leading to a seriously disturbing yarn about sensationalist journalism and those who consume it.
SO WHY IS IT WORTH WATCHING?
Making over five times its budget at the box-office and wowing most critics at the time, Nightcrawler was an even bigger hit than the filmmakers could have hoped for – and I think this success is totally warranted. From the stylish neo-noir photography that leaves you stranded in the middle of late-night LA to an unconventional script that avoids the usual pitfalls of trying to apply conventional morality to an irredeemable person, it’s no wonder that this beautifully crafted film struck a chord with audiences.
Of course, none of that would be possible if it wasn’t for Jake Gyllenhaal’s career-best performance as a highly unlikable yet utterly captivating protagonist that we love to hate. From his snake-ish demeanor to his gaunt face and famished eyes, we simply can’t look away from Lou as he devolves into greedy savagery in pursuit of the American dream.
Gyllenhaal’s acting may be boosted by a clever script that treats its despicable subject like an eerily believable human being instead of a movie monster, but you’ve really got to appreciate the lengths that the actor went to in order to bring this character to life. Jake actually made a point of keeping himself sleep deprived and even losing massive amounts of weight in order to make Lou look and feel like a “hungry coyote,” with this scavenger motif becoming a running theme throughout the rest of the film.
Strangely enough, Jake was nominated for nearly every major acting award for this role except for the Oscars, with many fans attributing this snub to the film’s genre influences – something that the Academy Awards have historic problem with. Regardless, Lou Bloom will still go down in history as one of the most memorable anti-heroes in cinema history, with or without an award, and that alone should convince you to give this flick a try.
AND WHAT MAKES IT HORROR ADJACENT?
Nightcrawler’s basic premise already invites comparisons to Mary Harron’s American Psycho, with both films chronicling the misadventures of terrible human beings who refuse to learn anything from the consequences of their actions. However, what makes this film stand out is just how grounded Lou’s “madness” is. In fact, I don’t think he’s mad at all, with his character’s extreme rationality being one of his defining characteristics and making him even creepier.
While Gilroy has repeatedly affirmed that Lou is by no means a psychopath, it’s hard to watch the film and imagine any kind of emotion behind his eyes other than avarice. In fact, there’s more than one moment where Lou comes off as a genuinely scary presence. From his intense monologue directed at his boss to the chilling final moments with his ex-assistant, the film makes it clear that nothing is off limits to this power-hungry predator.
That’s not even mentioning the flick’s extremely effective thriller elements, with Gilroy having originally envisioned the story as a more standard murder-mystery/conspiratorial investigation before peppering the narrative with other genre elements. While I agree with him and Gyllenhaal about the final version of the story being more of a dark comedy than anything else, there’s nothing funny about the oppressive atmosphere that purveys the entire experience here – or the real-world implications of Lou’s profession.
Nightcrawler may not be a bona fide scary movie, pulling from several different genres in its attempt to tell a nuanced story, but the flick is certainly unsettling in all the right ways. That’s why I think it’ll be a treat for horror fans who appreciate a bit of down-to-earth social commentary alongside their sociopaths. That being said, I’d still love to see a B-movie take on this story where a maniacal photojournalist ends up committing and staging murders just to get a perfect shot…
There’s no understating the importance of a balanced media diet, and since bloody and disgusting entertainment isn’t exclusive to the horror genre, we’ve come up with Horror Adjacent – a recurring column where we recommend non-horror movies that horror fans might enjoy.