****SPOILERS: If you are tempted to see this grim, Breaking-Bad-esque moral spiral of a movie (which, in this reviewer’s opinion, is brilliantly done), you will likely want to skip this review until you’ve seen it. As the TV announcers say throughout this film: Viewer Discretion is Advised – Graphic Scenes (and plot points) will be portrayed! You have been warned!
The morality of Nightcrawler may seem at first to be all about individual economic decisions – the decisions ambulance-chasing news videographer Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) makes as he climbs the ladder in a particularly dirty corner of the marketplace. When we meet Bloom, Timothy Wainwright says in his Christianity Today review of the film: “It’s as if Humphrey Bogart had a baby face, lost all his marbles, and gotten a subscription to the Harvard Business Review.”
But is this film really about the off-kilter entrepreneurial decisions of a lone-wolf opportunist?
What is the nature of this economic world in which Lou claws his way upward toward business success, discovering an arena for his vocational talents and setting out to create the apple of his eye—“Video Production News”?
It is a world where, as the film opens, a scrap dealer will pay a pittance for the unemployed Lou’s stolen copper wiring and manhole covers (knowing, one presumes, their provenance!) but refuses him a job: “I won’t hire a thief.”
It is the consumer power of a large voyeuristic television audience who, by tuning in morning by morning to indulge over their breakfast cereal in “news TV’s” never-ending grim tableaux of bloody car wrecks and fatal carjackings, provides the advertising-driven resources for the increasingly large checks Lou begins to rake in for his goulish film segments.
It is the world of practical but twist-able business advice that Lou reads on the internet and spouts to justify his tactics—for example, arriving first at crime scenes to tamper with them for “dramatic effect,” dragging a corpse to the other side of a flaming car to set up a better shot, or ignoring a dying man’s final groans as he zooms in for a better angle.
It is the cold, inexorable logic of marketplace competition that nerves him to commit act of fatal sabotage on his business rival’s van, to set up a climactic and deadly tableaux between cops and murderous drug dealers, and to send his only employee (who has just learned his boss’s cutthroat negotiation techniques and makes the mistake of using them on him) to his grisly death.
In the end, this tightly scripted film becomes itself a gruesome traffic accident from which we simply can’t turn away. At the same time, it is a parable for today—and what makes it so are the business-world bromides Lou spouts throughout. When we hear those common tropes of competition, success, “getting ahead in the world” coming from his mouth to justify the worst moral transgressions, we understand that he is not twisting their meaning – or at least not by much. There is plenty of room in those bland- and neutral-seeming inspiration-poster chestnuts for the worst depradations of the human heart.
And here is the nub for religious people working within this world system: How do the garden-variety pragmatic values of the marketplace shape us as people of faith? What protections do those values offer from the pressures to amass wealth, crave acclaim (whether deserved or not), wish ill to those who have more than us, and step on others on the way up the ladder that constantly press in on our souls in our economic lives? Can we hope that those values will somehow hold back from our own hearts the tidal wave of avarice, greed, and exploitation that pours back upon us from the mass of similarly pressured consumers, employers, customers, investors? Nightcrawler insists that they do not and they will not – that in fact the seemingly neutral conventions of the marketplace are well-framed to feed the worst devils of our nature.
We do not play the economic game on a morally neutral field. Nightcrawler is not finally about the moral decisions of a single individual (although those decisions drive the film). It is an unblinking modern noir anatomization of how our economic world so often runs – if not on the surface, then just under that surface. And if we are to take its deepest message to heart, it points beyond that world to the only Kingdom that can finally foster the true flourishing that human work so tantalizingly promises to provide: the Kingdom of the One who writes his law on our hearts.