How do we situate the film Nightcrawler by Dan Gilroy both in terms of its social commentary and genre? At a certain level, it’s like American Psycho for the post 2008 economic downturn and late finance capitalism period. Both films are ostensibly about how capitalist competition creates an intense sociopathy when subjects identify with the explicit demands of the given system. In the case of American Psycho it’s Wall Street, while in the case of Nightcrawler it’s the self-made entrepreneur. One system functions at the highest level of performance and produces sociopathy, while the other has failed, but identification with both systems and logics seem to generate sociopathy.
Where Nightcrawler differs from American Psycho, is that Lou (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes a sociopath by fulfilling the demand to become an entrepreneur, but such a demand can’t be met without full bore ruthlessness in this economy. In American Psycho, Christian Bale is made sociopathic as a result of identification with the highest level of performance and perfection of the Wall Street system as such. In both cases, it entails strict identification with competitive logic and the disastrous consequences of this literal identification. While Lou achieves his dream of becoming his own boss by the end of the film, we should understand the violence and sadistic actions that it took to get him there as indicative of the failure of neoliberalism.
The dark humor of the film comes about in the way in which Gyllenhaal rationalizes his brutal actions — murdering the other video company competition as well as his own employee — both done in order to further the goal of elimination of risk and competition–and expand his company. He rationalizes all of this by channeling a guidebook of entrepreneurial self-help discourse. This channeling makes his attitude and behavior no longer outwardly sadistic because it always has a gloss of self-help business manual speech tied to it. It seems as if he is continually channelling some sort of banal community-college Business 101 mantras directly to the letter.
We are told nothing of Lou’s personal family relationships, an omission that I think is brilliant. Rather, we are shown a sociopathic character who has literally converted all of his relationally to business logic. This is taken to gruesome extremes when he forces his main client, the TV Executive Nina (played by Rene Russo) to sleep with him, which may be about fulfilling a sexual desire, but is really about companionship. This is a larger commentary on how the very idea of companionship and intimacy is eligible for commodification. As Lou says to Nina over dinner, “a friend is a gift you give yourself” — a line that reveals this new form of neoliberal narcissism, a type of narcissism that is no longer produced by repressed family issues as much as it is tied to the very failure of market and economic subjectivization.
The dream of 20th century economists such as Von Mises and Hayek of the Austrian School, whose ideas formed the very core of neoliberal ideology, was one that sought to make competition a mode of conduct on subjects — in all areas of social life. The idea of competition was literally meant to invade even the sphere of civil society and personal relations, so that society could regulate itself and there is no institution required to regulate human action outside of the market, such as the state. This is the world that has now failed us, and it is the neo-noir Los Angeles that Nightcrawler captures so well.
In Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity by Maurizio Lazzarato, the argument being made is that capitalist subjectivity is formed in revolt of the very failure of the model of the entrepreneur and self-made man that originally underpinned the ideology of neoliberalism. Furthermore, neoliberal economic policy has failed to offer a compelling means of subjectivization, or a new model and we remain caught in a web of semiotic signifying and asignifying subjections to this failed discourse. As an interesting aside, Lazzarato argues that thinkers such as Badiou, Butler, Zizek and Ranciere insist on a separation between the economic sphere and that of the political sphere, but for Lazzarato, this distinction is false because it results in an idealist conception of the subject (11 – 12). In other words, it is the sphere of the economic that holds hegemonic sway over subjectivization today and it is not that of the political alone according to Lazzarato. Whether this rather even-handed account of their theory of subjectivity is accurate is another question all together, however, he does make a compelling case for the non-linguistic means of subjection that reign in today’s neoliberalism.
More generally, Lazzarato argues that neoliberalism has failed because it has been unwilling to take on the risks that might enable the full realization of the precarious entrepreneur. The entrepreneur cannot properly flourish and so instead of a life of upward mobility and a life of pleasure, the entrepreneur now has to take on the risks that the state will not take on.
Nightcrawler should thus be seen along with Breaking Bad, as a protest against the failure to become one’s own boss and entrepreneur. Whereas Breaking Bad maintains heroic and comedic story arcs, Nightcrawler plummets down a darker hole, showing the inherent criminality that it takes to now identify with the becoming entrepreneur.
On the Gaze, Violence and Shame (or lack thereof)
Another line of analysis of Nightcrawler that I would recommend would be to look at how voyeurism, violence and the gaze operate in the film. I think the danger to this analysis would be that one overly emphasize it to the detriment of missing the way in which the violence is itself drawn from the larger material and economic picture. The reason I think this is the more salient way to understand the film is because Lou was driven to succeed as an entrepreneur first and the occupation was merely incidental and not relevant. It was this separate demand that drove him, not the violence. If anything, it was the violence that drove the viewer and the news/media, but that’s an entirely separate point. He gained no perverse pleasure from documenting the violence, he rather did it because he was following the codes of conduct and the duty to become an entrepreneur.