Death of the Critic

Anatomy of a Character - Nightcrawler

Written by: Tom Blaich


It is hard to describe what “creepiness” is, the feeling of existential dread that it fosters deep within you, an inability to look away in fear of what might happen if you do, an uncertainty of what exactly is going on. And it’s a feeling that the oddly stoic Gyllenhaal nails to a T with the character of Lou Bloom. From the moment that he is introduced until the credits roll, he demands your attention, much in the same way as a wild animal or poisonous insect, calmly watching you back, his wide eyes searching for weakness.

From the moment that he is introduced to us, we watch him try to approximate normal human behavior. Behind his smiling mask, there is an anger simmering just below the surface. But the scariest part about him is not this rage. It is that this anger might just be another mask, trying to pass for normal human emotions.

Our first interaction with him takes place in a darkened lot at night, a pair of bolt cutters snipping away at a chainmail fence. He is collecting metal for scrap until he is interrupted by what appears to be a police officer, who confronts him and tells him that he is trespassing.

As soon as he is presented with the opportunity, his personality shifts. He’s not here maliciously anymore. He’s just lost. He paints a smile across his face as he slowly stalks closer. There is a palpable sense of tension in the air, only highlighted by Bloom’s recognition that the man is not a police officer, but instead private security for the lot that he is on. He notices a watch strapped across his wrist and all of a sudden he is like a jackal looking at a wounded gazelle, and as he steps within range your heart sinks. Bloom grabs the man, and after a brief and ugly scuffle, the camera cuts away.

The next thing we see is Bloom driving away, a roll of fencing sitting in the back of his car, and the guards watch in one of his hands. But we don’t see what happened to that guard. It is left up to our imaginations. We know that he finished taking down the fence. We know that he took the man’s watch. And we can see that no one is coming after him for this attack anytime during the rest of the movie. After the credits roll, you can’t help but wonder. Did he kill that man?

The five minute intro is important in setting up how we view Lou for the rest of the movie. He is clearly our protagonist, but he’s far from our hero. He’s not even a lovable anti hero, or a villain with an understandable motive. He’s just a bad person, and at first it can be hard to reconcile with how we view the film. As an audience, we don’t know how to deal with a character like this. Later on, we are introduced to Rick, a poor man so desperate for a job that he is willing to stick around to the bloody end, and in him, we find our audience surrogate.

He has tied himself to Lou, stuck with the man as his only lifeline to a much needed paycheck. There are so many moments where Rick should have left. Lou heaps abuse on him, tries not to pay him, yells and screams at him, and drags him to the worst places he can find in the city, filled with human suffering. But Rick sticks around.

He has to. He needs the money, and because of it, he tries to convince himself that Lou isn’t as bad as he appears. It’s a façade that comes crumbling down at the climax when Lou sends Rick to die for a perceived slight.

All along the way, we do the same. Trying to find reason behind Lou’s actions. Trying to excuse the things that he is doing, convincing ourselves that Lou isn’t really evil and he’s just
weird or creepy.

He emotionally manipulates us, “gaslights” us, tries to convince us that we are crazy for how we see him. The beginning of the movie does a great job at showing the true Lou because we get to see his capacity for anger and violence, his willingness to shift personality to better suit a situation and his callous disregard for human life.

When we see Lou at the construction site after he attacks the night guard, we see him shift again, this time from negotiation to “model” interviewee as he asks the foreman to give him a job. The speech he gives is canned, and reeks of a bad college career fair as he tries to sell himself to the foreman. What is really interesting about it though is not the change, but the fact that he makes the switch so obviously in front of someone else.

He either doesn’t care or doesn’t realize how it looks from the outside as he constructs his “eager to learn” façade. Even if he wasn’t a thief, why should this man hire Lou, as he watches him lie in front of his face for his own gain?

It’s like if you asked a teenager how a job interview should go, and their only real experience was in reading articles about it on the internet. Which might actually be the case for Lou. The only time that we ever see Lou interact with others is when he wants something from them. He doesn’t have social interactions, he has business transactions.

But we do see him studying. He looks at the internet every night with a single minded devotion towards studying his targets, from TV station and newscaster, to shot composition and filmmaking.

Taken without the sociopathy, these would be good traits, an intense desire for knowledge in what he does. But when combined with the rest of his personality, it becomes more sinister, a search for leverage, for power over someone else, for the ability to be the best and crush others under his heel.

We can see it when he interviews Rick at the diner, where he finally gets to turn the tables and be the one in control. No longer is he the hard worker seeking employment. He is the one making the demands. “Why hire you?” It is a good question, but coming from a strange place. Lou wants to play at being more than he is, and he’s looking for a weak target to force into assisting him. He pokes and prods at Rick, “What’s your address?” “Homeless?” “You trick?”, because he wants someone disposable, someone that society won’t care about, someone he can manipulate into doing whatever he wants.

It reminds us of a conversation that Lou has with Nina about what the news is looking for. They don’t care about poor people or minorities. They want crime done to the rich by the poor, “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Lou knows that he can put Rick in danger to get his shots, and no one will care when he inevitably becomes a part of one of Lou’s stories.


This power is what makes the job so attractive to Lou. He presides over death and mayhem, profiting off of the worst horrors that humanity has to offer. Many times we don’t even get to see it in the moment, being teased with the idea of what has happened, and having to wait until later when we finally see the recording. The film makes us want the carnage by holding it back, playing us right into Lou’s hands, his cameras catching the last breath of a dying man or a destroyed home, standing above like an emotionless god.

The power is addictive, and soon he wants more. So Lou sets his sights on Nina and asks her to dinner. It is a tacky Mexican restaurant, the atmosphere only enhanced by Lou’s awkwardly forward flirting. “I like the dark makeup on your eyes. I also like the way you smell.”

It’s immediately obvious to both us and her that Lou’s intentions are for more than just a friendly dinner. We have to watch as she tries to evade him, wonder how much of what he says is true. He’s been researching her online, “everything about you is online”, and we start to see him leverage her with it. It’s like he’s made a checklist of things to do:
1.       Compliment her makeup
2.       Compliment her perfume
3.       Threaten her
And as he runs down the list, we wonder just how much he does know, and we know just what he is willing to do with it. It feels like he’s interviewing her again, but this time he knows what she’s going to say and how he’s going to force her to do what he wants. He just wants to use people, and every interaction he has with someone exists to further that.

He “wants to be the guy that owns the station that owns the camera.” He seems to regurgitate facts off of business building lists before immediately transitioning back into hitting on her. “The place I’m in now is that I want a relationship with someone that I can team up with, and share, like we share the same job and hours and whatnot.”

Oddly, it is one of his more genuine moments as he prepare to blackmail her. She can tell as well, trying her best to deflect his advances, but he does not stop. “I want that, with you. Like you want to keep your job and health insurance.”

“You’re the news director on the vampire shift, of the lowest rated station in Los Angeles. We have what could be considered an almost exclusive relationship.” Lou has been targeting her for a long time, perhaps even from the beginning, waiting for his moment to strike. Where he has the power she needs.

On one side we have Nina’s horror and on the other we have Lou’s almost clueless nonchalance. You almost wonder if he knows the magnitude of his statement, or if he’s just like a child with a new toy, twisting it to see if it’ll break.

She tries to reason with him, offer him a job and a retainer to hold him off. But he is relentless, “I happen to know you haven’t stayed at one station for longer than two years at a time, and you’re coming up on two years soon. I can imagine that your contract is for that length of time, and that next month’s rating directly affect that.”

“So you’re threatening that if I don’t…”
“I’m negotiating”
“You’re threatening to stop selling to me.” “That’s your choice. The true price of any item is what someone is willing to pay for it. You want something. And I want you.”

“To fuck you.”

There is no way out for her at this point. Nothing that she can do to escape him, or at least that is what he’d like her to think. He wants her to see him as her only option out of this mess. It’s a classic tactic of abusers, creating dependency in their target, a feeling that attempts to get away are useless.

It makes you wonder if this is just another tactic he learned online or if this is actually him. It’s hard to tell, especially with all of the other things that we’ve seen him do. It’s like an even more demented version of “negging” a tactic popular with so-called “pick up artists”, where you try to make someone feel worthless so they’ll have sex with you.

“Jesus Christ. Friends don’t pressure friends to fucking sleep with them.”
“Actually that’s not true Nina. Cause, as you know, a friend is a gift you give yourself.”

You can tell he believes it. So he thinks that he is righteous in his actions, and that there is nothing wrong with what he is doing, and is justified in holding footage over her head, mad at how she is treating his asking price, but also her refusal of his sexual coercion in the bedroom.

“Now I like you Nina. And i look forward to our time together. But you have to understand, 15,000 isn’t all that i want. From here on, starting now, I want my work to be credited by the anchor and on a burn. The name of my company is ‘Video Production News, a professional news-gathering service’ That’s how it should be read and that is how it should be said. I also want to go to the next rung and meet your team, and the station manager, and the director, and the anchor, and start developing my own personal relationships. I’d like to start meeting them this morning. You’ll take me around, you’ll introduce me as the owner and president of Video Production News, and remind them of some of my many other stories.

I’m not done, I also want to stop our discussion over price. This will save time. SO when i say that a particular number is my lowest price, that’s my lowest price, and you can be assured that I arrived at whatever that number is very carefully. Now, when i say that i want these things, I mean that i want them and i don't want to have to ask again.

And the last thing, Nina, is for you to do the things that I ask you to do when we’re alone together in your apartment. Not like the last time!”

It starts off as a tough negotiation, but becomes more unhinged the further it goes. Would he ever have made these demands if ont for her perceived “disobedience?” It is a hard question to answer as the human facade fades and the more animalistic id shows through. Sex, money, and power is what he wants, and he’s trying to cut Nina and make his own relationships in her place.

Lou doesn’t like to feel threatened, and Nina’s refusal of him feels like a threat. He doesn’t want to lose his grasp over her, because if he did, he would lose his easy in at a news station, a reliable source of income, and someone he can force to have sex with him. So he seizes the opportunity that the home invasion tape offers, a family slain in their own home, to reinforce the bonds that he has her under. He’s nothing if not careful, planning for every eventuality.

But Nina is not the only one that he feels threatened by. His driver/partner/”intern” Rick does not appreciate Lou’s methods. He has morals and a conscience, and working with Lou puts a strain on them, slowly breaking down his will.

It all comes to a head after Lou follows the gunmen from the home invasion with a plan to wait until they are in a public place, full of innocent people, before calling the cops so he can film and then sell the carnage. The idea that this will kill bystanders is obvious, and far from dissuading Lou, it just encourages him. The more people that die, the better, because Lou can sell all of that juicy footage to the news. He stands to make a fortune, no matter who dies.

Rick doesn’t stop him. He’s been subject to the corrupting influence of Lou for too long. Instead he demands money. And to take money from Lou is as if you personally attacked him. In return, Lou orchestrates his death. He calls the police about the gunmen, and follows the one who flees in a high speed chase, reminiscent of the first night Rick works for Lou where he forces him to tear through the city streets.

But then the gunman’s car crashes, trying to ram a police car off the road. Lou and Rick get out, and Lou tells Rick to go film the crash, that the man is dead. “Steady hands. Use your zoom.” He gives the impression that all is normal. But it isn’t. Rick doesn’t find a corpse. He finds a man with a gun who shoots him 4 times in the chest.

Lou just watches. Even as the man kicks out the window of the crashed car and crawls out, he just keeps filming. Standing as an observer until he is gunned down by the police. Only then does he go up to Rick.

“I can’t jeopardize my company’s success to retain an untrustworthy employee… You took my bargaining power Rick. You used it against me. You would do it again. Admit it.”

“I don’t know”

It is with this that Rick dies. In Lou’s world, this was something that he was forced to do, that he did reluctantly. Rick was not ready to step into this arena, unprepared for the horror he would face. We see it at the diner and again during the chase where Rick is panicking and Lou is creepily calm. He is not set out to operate in this murky underworld.

So it is fitting that this corruption ends up at a car crash, much like the one where Lou got his start. But instead of rushing in, for once he hangs back, and let’s his protege go forward to take his place.

It makes the final scene so much more powerful. Lou stands in front of two news vans and a handful of teenagers.

“I will never ask you to do anything that i wouldn’t do myself.” He will corrupt them. Put them in harm's way until they are either dead or become like him. He’s a poisonous insect, digging in deep, laying his eggs in others until they rot. He’ll use anything he can for power and recognition. He’s a scavenger, picking at corpses on the side of the road until he’s shooed away by the good people around him. He’s a coyote, a vulture, a spider rewarded for his lack of morality and penchant for manipulation.

He’s a Nightcrawler.



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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Images courtesy of The Weinstein Company

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