Nightcrawler, Sociopathy, and Shock Value: Why are we so Intrigued by Sociopathic Enigmas?

In case you are not familiar, Jake Gyllenhaal’s new film entitled, Nightcrawler, came out on Friday. Nightcrawler (written and directed by Dan Gilroy) can be described as a character study/ thriller that tracks the movement, evolution, and career path of Gyllenhaal’s character Louis (not Lou) Bloom. This film was entertaining, well shot, and got solid reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. I would definitely recommend seeing it. But this isn’t a review. I wanted to post on it because it got me thinking about a couple of topics.

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I would say that the film had two main focuses. First is my biggest fascination: stories, how we tell them, and which sell in today’s  media world. When Bloom, a loner thief and night prowler looking for his next “business move,” encounters an automobile accident that is followed closely by a camera crew (which arrives only a minute or two after the police) he has a quick chat with the camera man in charge (played by Bill Paxton). Paxton’s character tells Bloom that “if it bleeds it leads” referring to the nasty crash, the shot he got of the woman being pried from her car, and the media’s need to capture the most gruesome aspects of a crime (as well as the public’s delight in consuming said footage). What Bloom gains from his exchange is the realization that his night prowling lifestyle lends itself to the career “night crawler” protocol. And our adventure begins as Bloom builds his amateur newmore nightcrawlers footage business.

The film comments very heavily on the violence saturated media of today’s world by featuring a news director, Nina (played by Rene Russo), scratching for views and hype then delivering both through voyeuristic shots of homicide, bleeding victims, and composed “urban crime creeping into the suburbs” footage provided by no-holds-barred Bloom. Bloom’s character strategically follows crime and instead of intervening to prevent the injustices, he half creates it, waiting intently to point and shoot for his boss lady. Although the representation of 24 hr news blocks, shock value story framing, and the “bleeding leads” style segments is definitely dramatized and exaggerated, many of these news room scenes feel disturbingly believable. The fact that the media continues to play such a negative role in film shows that people are skeptical about the way broadcast news channels present news, and the way wecrazybloom consume and share it. At the same time, I think there is more to this movie than that particularly popular criticism.

The second and more fascinating aspect of this film are Bloom’s  sociopathic characteristics and the unexpected admiration I felt for them. His encyclopedic knowledge of human interaction, power dynamics, and working one’s way to the top shows that he can play social, but prefers not. At one point in the film he states, “Did you ever think that maybe it’s not that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?” These stoic and powerful words characterize the way in which Bloom manipulates and moves people around him like chess pieces. He is a careful analyzer; he thinks, he plans, and he knows what he wants. He certainly understands people and their motivations, and in some ways his formulaic lectures (given to his “employee” and to potential employers) manage to be convincing. This character is a real testament to Jake Gyllenhaal’s talent for portraying the enigmatic character, but what I can’t get over is how personally compelled I was by Louis Bloom. He wasn’t a good character, he wasn’t even a likable one (read more about unlikeable characters here), but there were still moments when I watched that made me wish I could be as persistent and direct as he is. What I walked away with after viewing this film is the notion that I possess a strange fear and nightcrawler3respect for sociopathy and that maybe American society does too.

Although much of what he did was wrong, our ruthless nightcrawler, Bloom, managed to achieve consistent success throughout the film and in the end he was never punished for his immoral behavior. In real life, I think he probably would have been punished (the film leaves some realism to be desired here). However, the fact that sometimes we like the sociopath to succeed (and filmmakers feature sociopaths who succeed) says something about our perceptions of success and our beliefs about strong character and moral behavior (of course I could be the only one who was very ok, almost pleased that Bloom succeeded in his business endeavors). But this isn’t the only example of condoned sociopathy in film.

A so·ci·o·path is defined by dictionary.com as “a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.” Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon, The Joker (Heath Ledger edition) in the Dark Knight, and Jason Dean from Heathers (just to name a few) are all sociopaths who sparkle on the screen. I don’t think Bloom is quite as evil as these examples, but I think thajokert what they all have in common and what people admire about them is their lack of inhibition, their bluntness, and their go-getting attitudes. They all get what they want, do what they want, and are who they are without apologies. I am not saying they are good or even that the films featuring them mean to claim that their behavior is permissible, but I think that maybe regular people venerate these characters because they do what we wish we could and they are all so goddamned committed to their singular missions.

They are complex characters that are wrong but also right. There is something very commendable about conviction and courage of conviction even if the characters are determined to accomplish destructive goals. There is something truly estimable and enviable about knowing what you want and seeing the acquisition of it all the way through to the bitter end. There’s especially something valuable about the unwavering discipline and control characters like these exhibit. And I think even if we might not want to admit it, a large part of what is so unsettling about sociopathic characters, these in particular, is our discomfort with our admiration of their qualities in these contexts.

That being said, this hypothesis depends on how one measures success. Most sociopathic sensations are lacking in other areas of their life and are rather isolated individuals, but we are still attracted to the success and freedom of sociopathy.

Maybe you disagree or have thoughts (please share them) … and maybe I am wrong, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

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