As the third act of Nightcrawler begins, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) screams at his reflection within a bathroom mirror, then shatters it. It’s a scene that toes vertiginously close to cliché, but never, thanks to both Gyllenhaal’s performance and Gilroy’s script, crosses that fatal line. And I think the reason lies in who Lou Bloom is. Lou Bloom, you see, is a stringer—a freelance photojournalist who feeds himself off footage he sells to local news stations. For Lou, this footage consists of car crashes and their victims, headless bodies and their emancipated heads, casualties from robberies gone wrong. In the scene in which the movie at last revealed its identity to me, Lou interviews the lone survivor of an accident involving an SUV. He pesters the man until he snaps, asking Lou what the fuck is wrong with him. People are dead, dude. People are fucking dead.
At the beginning of 2020, I got my second tattoo. It’s on the inside of my left wrist, the skin I would slash if I wished to kill myself, an act I decided a year ago to never perform. In typewriter font, it reads: No one can imagine nothing. By which I mean: no one can imagine that which follows death. (I do not believe in God. I do not believe in no God, no. But neither do I believe in God.) By which I also mean: one must tell themselves stories in order to cope with the nothing that comes after. One must create meaning, no matter this meaning’s cost.
Nightcrawler is one of a few films I call great. (The list of films I call great is very small, and very personal. Donnie Darko is on this list, as is the lesser-known They Look Like People, both of which are about protagonists fighting desperately to cling to life in the face of a preoccupation with death.) I call it great because it is rare that I see the desire for more represented so viscerally on screen. And represented not once, but twice. Lou wants more, and will go to any length to get it. Rick (Rizwan Ahmed), his partner, likewise wants more, but the more that he wants lacks italics. Rick wants nothing more than enough to live.
The pull of Nightcrawler lies in the divide between these two types of need. I empathize with Lou’s desire to be someone, no matter the cost. After 2020, though, I better understand Rick’s desire to be at all. Yesterday, then, watching Nightcrawler for the third time, the film’s climax, in which Lou orchestrates and films Rick’s death at the hands of a fleeing gunman, landed closer to home than it had in either of my previous viewings. The film’s hollow-eyed hero kills the film’s voice of empathy and reason—and gets away with it. The desire for fame slaughters the simpler need to survive, and then sells the footage of this killing for thousands of dollars.
My freshman year of college, a peer of mine dug up (courtesy of Google) a photo of Jake Gyllenhaal from his senior year of high school. The parallels between his face and mine were obvious. Over the following four years, I would grow out of this resemblance. Then, over the next four years, these last four years, I would grow back into it—not Gyllenhaal at his healthy, Taylor Swift-dating best, though, but Gyllenhaal at his leanest. Gyllenhaal during the shooting of Nightcrawler—hollow-eyed, gaunt. Lou Bloom hovering above Rick and speaking calmly to him as he died. Embodied ambition. Desire personified, and in as horrifying a fashion as it’s ever been depicted on screen.
Nightcrawler should unsettle anyone who watches it. This being said, I doubt that it will scare you as much as it does me. Nightcrawler frightens me more than I am able to say, and more than I hope you ever know.
Colin Lubner writes (in English) and teaches (math) in southern New Jersey. His work has either appeared or will appear, temporally speaking. Recent pieces can be found through his Twitter: @no1canimagine0. He is keeping on keeping on.