[SPOILER WARNING: This article assumes that you have seen Nightcrawler]
At the 35:40 minute mark of the film Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhal) gazes off screen at something we can’t see and reflects: “On TV it looks so real”. We are in a news studio, and a cut reveals that he is gazing out over the painted backdrop of LA the anchors sit in front of while delivering the news. It is fake – an imitation of something that actually does exist out in the world, but on TV this fraud comes close to looking like the real thing. Left alone in the studio shortly afterwards he eyes the news desk and sits behind it. The frame shows him twice over: once in focus on the news studio’s camera, and once again out of focus – the actual Lou Bloom sitting behind the news desk (pictured above).
This is indicative of who Lou Bloom is, and what he represents. Nightcrawler is above all a character study of Lou Bloom (specifically easy to see because his character absolutely refuses to change throughout the story) and his wild search for the American Dream. Everything about Lou is interchangeable – he has no core being. He wears different masks around different people, and it is easy for him to do because if you were to dig down deep enough, you’d find nothing, just empty space to be covered over. That is why the news makes so much sense to him. It’s no secret that the people in the foreground, on our TV screens, are acting – becoming “news anchors” and shedding their personal lives. But we assume that there is someone in the background, behind that mask, a real personality that the newsperson wears when they are not on camera. For Lou that personality is blurry and out of focus. He doesn’t really have one. Only performance feels “real” to Lou, while reality feels dislocated and fake. He feels that the anchors performances are real, while he is unable to recognize the real visceral horror of the scenes he films.
His attempts to fulfill the American Dream aren’t rooted in some deep belief in the American Dream. It is just the “local myth” of definition – anyone can be anything. The American Dream only informs him because it is the only clear picture of what self-definition is offered to him – I don’t think it shapes him so much as he morphs his personality to aspire for it. Born elsewhere and offered different ideals, I believe he’d latch onto them just as fervently. As it is, he believes one has achieved when one has a skill and money and a business and a romantic life and a social network. We are told in America that those things define a person. Lou doesn’t care about the things. What he longs for is definition and control. At a certain point in the movie he coerces Nina, played by Rene Russo, into a relationship. It feels again like something that he is trying to mold into his identity. There is no doubt that he is truly committed to the relationship, or his control of it (he berates her later for not following his wishes in a intimate setting) but I think we can assume that it isn’t so much the contact that intrigues him as the status and definition it provides. “I am in a relationship” simply ticks off another box of the American Dream. He needs to control the relationship because he is attempting to mold a life to wear as a mask.
The movie offers us clues early on that Lou doesn’t have anything going on below the surface other than wild and aimless drive to follow the American Dream. In a very early scene he tries to get a job from the man he sells stolen metal to. Lou makes a strong pitch: he is driven, determined, ready to learn the business, ready to take an internship. He will define himself by his work. But the man already has identified Lou. He has chosen the label of “thief”. This doesn’t sit well with Lou. He may be, at his heart, a thief, but he is more interested in the masks that can cover up his emptiness, so he seeks a path and becomes a stringer later that night.
It’s not that he wasn’t interested in the metal business. But he abandons it as soon as he realizes he will never be able to assume the mask that he wants within it. Most of us are taught to find something we are passionate about and become good at it. Lou learns to find something he is good at and become passionate about it. In the scene mentioned at the opening of the article, he discusses how he chose his career, and describes a list of his strengths and weaknesses as they apply to different jobs he could consider. “I recently remade my list, Nina, and I happen to think that television news might be something I love, as well as something that I’m good at.” He states it in the order that people expect to hear: love, then good at, but his phrasing betrays him: he thinks he might love it, but it is definitely something he is good at. He has no compass below the surface swinging towards one thing or the other, so he reverse engineers the process.
Lou is striving to fill an emptiness that makes him utterly alien. He lacks the core character and morals that make someone human, and his awareness of this is what forces him to wear masks. He is an android from Blade Runner, totally unaware of the others around him, aware only of his own perception in the world. We see him assault a guard in the very first scene, and any admiration we might feel towards him afterwards (after all, he DOES successfully fulfill the American Dream) is mitigated by the constant reminder of the ill-fitting watch on his wrist. He may look the part of success, but it is meaningless to him unless others buy it. And he never will be able to totally sell his mask, because like his stolen watch it will always be ill fitting.
Book – I originally had another suggestion (Don Quixote, which likewise examines an example of someone absorbing a mythos into their core being, corrupting anything that was there before), but while writing I stumbled upon the clear analogy with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The Androids hate empathy because they are unable to understand it, and I think Lou would take a similar stance.
TV – I think it’d be hard to find another piece of televised media that so clearly has such a void monstrous character (really, though I didn’t discuss it in the article Gyllenhal’s acting in the movie is astounding). Breaking Bad seems like an obvious suggestion, but Walter White is both more aware of what he’s doing, and derives more pleasure. He has chosen what to be and feels that he has stepped into those shoes, whereas Lou appears to be casting around more aimlessly. I guess a better example of a character akin to Lou would be Deathnote’s Light, who acts one way to mask something far more sinister and alien.
Movie – Excluding the other movies that year which were about the American Dream, since we will be covering them in articles shortly (Whiplash, Foxcatcher, Birdman) the best recommendation would be The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci). This movie also examines someone who takes their national identity and allows it to subsume their personal identity, because they are an empty void in need of filling. The movie goes in a radically different direction, but features a similar character in its lead role.
Thoughts? Please feel free to engage in the comments section!