Our introduction to the hero of Nightcrawler, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), comes as he’s stealing wire from a rail yard. Stopped by a security guard, Bloom tries to bluff his way out of trouble before viciously beating the sentry and stealing his watch.
Bloom is selling scrap—copper wiring, some piping, even manhole covers—for pennies on the dollar. After closing the deal, he asks the foreman to whom he has just sold his obviously stolen goods for a job. Failing that, an internship. He wants to get in on the ground floor and work his way up. The boss blows him off in a not-so-gentle fashion. When Bloom persists, he finally blows up: "I’m not hiring a fucking thief."
Eventually, Bloom finds a boss with fewer scruples than a scrap yard buyer who traffics in stolen manhole covers: the director of a morning news program on a local Los Angeles station. Listening to police scanners and shooting video of murders, car crashes, and drive by shootings, Bloom becomes an indispensible member of Nina Romina’s (Rene Russo) team of stringers.
Nina recognizes that Bloom is a little nuts and entirely unaware of things like "common human decency" after he shows her video of a carjacking victim bleeding on a stretcher. She probably recognizes it because she has some of the same deadness in her soul: Much to the horror of her more ethically minded coworker, Frank (Kevin Rahm), she sees not a man bleeding out on a gurney but a ratings bonanza.
Nightcrawler is a fascinating movie. Not so much for its story or theme: the critique of the media as amoral bottom-feeders is not only self-evidently true but has also been done before. The degradation of news at the expense of sensationalism is neither a new nor a solvable problem.
What’s fascinating about this movie is the way in which writer/director Dan Gilroy treats Bloom. He’s framed as a regular cinematic hero rather than a devious anti-hero, getting the girl at the end, getting all the musical cues and camera moves one would expect for a lovable protagonist.
One example: Bloom comes across a car wreck and finds a battered and bloodied (and possibly still-breathing) man has been catapulted through the windshield. He turns on his camera, climbs a rock, and tries to get a shot, but realizes the angles are all wrong. So he does what any sociopath would do: He drags the body—face scraping across broken glass, twisted limbs rolling on the asphalt—away from the car, and climbs back on his perch.
The camera pushes in on Bloom, arms raised (to hold up the camera, but mimicking a pose of triumph), eyes wide, smile huge. The music swells. Our (horrible, disgusting, despicable) hero has his shot! Triumph!
Nightcrawler is full of little moments like this one. Gilroy isn’t excusing Bloom’s behavior or asking us to sympathize with him. He’s showing us what is considered heroic and important in the news industry.
In Whiplash, Andrew (Miles Teller) is a drummer at a conservatory in New York City. He’s been driven since childhood to be not a great jazz drummer but one of the greats. And to get there, he needs the help of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the leader of the band featuring the school’s best group of musicians.
He needs Fletcher because Fletcher is the only one who will push him. Even the driven require a driver, and Fletcher is more than happy to hop behind the wheel. To win the approval of Fletcher—and, more importantly, a spot on the band—Andrew will play until his thumbs and his fingers and his palms drip with blood, until there’s a fine red mist on the snare and droplets of sweat on the crash.
It’s not as though Fletcher is doing something Andrew doesn’t want. Earlier in the film, he breaks up with a nice young girl because, he was sad to say, she would just hold him back and he would resent her and she would resent him. So why not just call it off right now before they get too deep, okay?
Eventually, Fletcher pushes too far and, in an effort to please his (tor)mentor, Andrew gets into a car crash, can’t perform, and goes berserk on stage. Andrew is expelled. Fletcher is fired after Andrew’s father pressures him to testify against his former teacher in a disciplinary hearing.
Andrew’s guilt over his defenestration of Fletcher stems from the fact that he understood what, and why, Fletcher was doing. He was pushing the boy to find a new level of excellence, of greatness.
"Truth is, I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Shaffer," Fletcher tells Andrew. "I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity. Otherwise we’re depriving the world of the next Louie Armstrong, the next Charlie Parker."
If Nightcrawler is a movie about the ways in which amorality is damaging society, Whiplash is a movie about the ways in which amorality can improve it. It’s about the social utility of sociopathy, about the refusal to fret over self-esteem or hurt feelings or mental or physical pain in the pursuit of greatness.