In our Genius Character Reveals series we examine scenes and moments where a film or TV show reveals a tremendous amount of character information in a compressed amount of screen time. This instalment focuses on Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the thief-turned-cameraman in NIGHTCRAWLER.
Lou Bloom and NIGHTCRAWLER
NIGHTCRAWLER is a neo-noir thriller written and directed by Dan Gilroy. It follows Lou Bloom’s ascendancy as a news cameraman who gets a reputation for capturing footage of violent crime, particularly against the wealthy.
Manipulating morning news director Nina (Rene Russo), Lou grows his business, hiring the desperate Rick (Riz Ahmed) to help him reach crime scenes before anyone else, including the police…
The film was a hit in cinemas (aided by memorable viral marketing) and nominated for many awards, including Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Who is Lou Bloom?
Even with Jake Gyllenhaal’s natural charm, Lou Bloom has a disturbing presence is disturbing, from his underweight frame to his sunken eyes and the fact that he never blinks. Not much is known about his past, although he has the patter of a salesman.
How is Lou Bloom’s character revealed by the action and dialogue?
NIGHTCRAWLER opens with views of Los Angeles at night.
Gradually we focus in on Lou Bloom as he uses bolt cutters to pull down a fence. He puts the metal in the back of his beaten-up car.
A truck pulls up and a man confronts Lou. Bloom claims he’s lost, then that he didn’t know this was a restricted area, then that he thought it was a detour.
Lou asks the man about his uniform, recognises him as private security and then says he tried to get one of those jobs.
The man goes for Lou’s license. Lou attacks him and takes his watch.
At a scrapyard, Lou haggles with the owner about the “market value” of the metal he’s brought in. The owner is incensed, even more so when Lou has the temerity to ask for a job. Lou suggests an unpaid internship. The owner responds:
I’m not hiring a f***ing thief.
What do we learn about Lou Bloom in this scene?
Lou Bloom is introduced in his environment, the seedy nighttime underworlds of LA. The city’s concrete river, shown in this scene, is a good metaphor for his character. There’s something not quite natural about him.
One of the major themes of the film is already present in this introduction. How much is Lou a singular case, an anomaly? How much is he a product of his environment, this city and this system? He only becomes successful as a cameraman capturing sordid and violent scenes because that’s what the TV audience want to see.
Excuse me, but that gate was open, sir. I was under the opinion that it was a detour. What kind of uniform is that?
There’s one fundamental character trait that is established here. Lou Bloom will do anything to survive. He’ll steal, and when he’s caught he’ll bargain and lie. He’s not afraid of embarrassing or morally compromising himself, and he’ll use violence when necessary.
Again, this makes him the perfect protagonist for Gilroy’s dark portrait of how the media functions in capitalism.
This also creates a strong dramatic tension, a kind of sick fascination in the audience. We can’t stop watching, not because we’re rooting for him exactly but because we want to know: how far will Lou go?
I’m willing to take less to establish a business relationship.
Lou’s interaction with the scrapyard owner is also telling of how Lou is a part of a system. The owner might dislike Lou personally, might scoff at his lengthy pitch for a job, but he’ll still take his metal.
When Lou complains about the price, the owner points out:
Market value? You know the cops came by asking about manhole covers.
In a way, the owner is no different from Lou. Both are driven entirely by self-interest.
Lou’s talent is in figuring out what other people want, even if they don’t know or can’t articulate it themselves, and pitching himself as the person who can give it to them.
This interaction is a rare time when his skills fail him. This only spurs him on to do better, and perhaps change industry.
As the script vividly describes him:
LOU’S 30 … pure primal id … if there’s music it’s in his head … disconnected … feral … driven by dollar signs and a dream of some imagined Eden
Why is this an example of brilliantly succinct screenwriting?
This opening sequence is completely self-contained. Lou’s past as a thief never comes back to haunt him. The inciting incident happens right afterwards, when Lou sees people filming the aftermath of a car accident, inspiring him to do the same.
However, this sequence is a microcosm of the story that follows. It shows how Lou, despite his tics, can be smooth, persuasive, and dangerous.
He’s not a fit for the scrapyard. The TV news industry, however, offers him a chance to start fresh. It’s somewhere that will reward, rather than punish, his complete lack of morals.
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