2014’s Nightcrawler is the story of Lou Bloom, a cosmopolitan sociopath who finds success in the media. Unlike other brands of villain, Lou is lucky enough to live in a system which rewards a certain variety of exploitative creep with material goods and prestige. Rather than coming off like a cretin, Lou sends off the right social signals by speaking in the language of entrepreneurship, pop psychology, and power-of-positive-thinking aphorisms.
In the beginning of the film, Lou is eking out a living by stealing scrap metal and bikes. he soon discovers that local morning shows will pay cash for sensational footage, so he begins a career in the news industry, zipping across Los Angeles to film his fellow Angelenos bleeding and dying. Because he possesses no conscience, and there’s no moral line he’s unwilling to cross, Lou is a natural. Over Nightcrawler‘s runtime, he climbs the ladder as he’s able to deliver bloodier, ever more dramatic footage to his corporate patrons. At Lou’s station, one producer tries to agitate for some standard of decency, but is overruled. After all, the basic nature of a money-making organization dictates that profits must comes above all else.
If all this sounds like a lesson about capitalism, that’s what I thought, too. Lou isn’t just rewarded because he is willing to transgress boundaries that others won’t. More importantly, there are built-in, structural reasons for this. No matter how many people within the organization may object on moral grounds, the system has certain demands. Regardless of how well-meaning the managers and day laborers within the system might be, it’ll produce predation a general cheapening of human life. That’s what’s in the film text, anyway–from Lou himself to the producer whose objections are dismissed.
Dan Gilroy, in an interview with The Guardian, sounds like he’s criticizing an exploitative system. People like Lou “don’t make the rules, [they] are supplying a need… I see them as a cog in a much larger machine.” So far, so systemic.
Unfortunately, a few sentences later, Gilroy inserts the caveat that “Lou is capitalism gone amok.” Good ol’ capitalism, running amok again. According to its director, what audiences are seeing in Nightcrawler is some sort of mutant strain of capitalism’s neutral, Platonic form.
Some critics, like Anthony Lane of The New Yorker or Scott Tobias of The Dissolve, don’t mention capitalism at all; instead, the film’s message is more of a commentary on the “if it bleeds, it leads” nature of the media, like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.
However, those who do see the political-economic allegory echo Gilroy. A reviewer for a “progressive culture” site calls it an example of “extreme capitalism,” another one explains that “dog-eat-dog capitalism” is on display. The Guardian piece cordons off the film’s message by calling it “rampant capitalism.” To his credit, Gilroy sometimes concedes that his film indicts capitalism as a whole, without weaselly qualifiers, before saying that “there isn’t another system that I’m aware of that works better than capitalism.” It’s not perfect, but…
The split over Nightcrawler‘s message is a typical one between those who recognize that capitalism itself is the problem versus those who are trying to save it by Bad Apple-ing the most obvious excesses. This isn’t remotely unique to this one movie, obviously. However, it’s interesting because in this case, the evidence for capitalism’s problems being structural is marshaled so unequivocally. The film’s narrative shows clearly how the system rewards a sociopath because it itself is immoral, and no benevolent interlopers can change that, try as they might. Even with such a clearly laid-out sequence of events, though, people who want to save capitalism will call its most overt villains aberrations, regardless of the evidence otherwise.
It’s a useful reminder of how easily anti-capitalist rhetoric can be appropriated and neutered by liberals, and how politics that aren’t anti-capitalist are ultimately trying to save an evil system.