Comparing Nightcrawler with Taxi Driver is not exactly new. Perceptive viewers will tell at a glance how similar the two films are in terms of themes. We at Cinemamonogatari aim to analyze some of the components of that comparison. How Nightcrawler both pays homage to Taxi Driver and differs significantly in key areas.
Seeing the experiences of the information age as a single continuum is a mistake. The digital age is extraordinary and is simply not like the earlier installments of this era. It is like a very quick fissure in how the world was perceived. Millennials bore the brunt of it, from being a generation that still knew a pre-digital world to a generation that is quickly losing touch with that pre-digital world.
Angry Young Man
Louis Bloom sounds a little like Leopold Bloom (and his famous alter-ego, Stephen Dedalus) in James Joyce’s Ulysses. That might suggest Nightcrawler to be a sprawling ‘city movie’ as well as a movie about clashing identities. Bloom’s sociopathy is countered by the viewer’s moral questions. Bloom triumphs in his action, which implies a disturbing notion of the inevitable triumph of late-stage capitalism over humanity. Bloom’s protége, Rick (Riz Ahmed) provides a human counterpoint to this nihilistic revelry. But even that representation has a cynical edge. Before dying, Rick acknowledges in a moment of painful honesty that had he lived – he too might have ended up embracing Bloom’s strategies eventually. He simply cannot be sure.
Click below to buy the original Ulysses by James Joyce!
At least this uncertainty lets him die as a human being. Still, this confused rebel in Rick is not the real ‘hero’ of this movie. It is Bloom’s suave but inhuman existence that is presented as a fascinating watch, as a heroic turn. If Bloom’s alter-ego corresponds to Daedalus, then Rick’s is Icarus who ignores Daedalus’ warning, flies too close to the sun, and expires. To recall the ironic title of Lermontov’s classic 19th-century novel, Louis Bloom is “a hero of our time.” It is, after all, an anti-heroic age. Bargaining is the name of the game. Nowhere is Bloom’s prowess more visible than in the restaurant scene with his boss, Nina (Rene Russo). That particular scene showcases a compelling mix of admiration with repugnance, which is a core thematic strand in the film.
There is a constant, pent-up rage in Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. But for Bloom, that anguish has been buried so deep in a prolonged, uncompromising struggle for survival, that it has been synthesized into cold, hard reasoning. Nightcrawler’s Bloom may not be a literal “taxi driver,” but he paints a pretty good picture of the taxi drivers of our age in some sense. Always on the go, always ready for the job. Always one phone call away. Without a hint of fatigue, without recognizable human expression. A humanoid machine in service of a larger panopticon network that keeps returning less and less while demanding more and more.
That difference in era shows in the specificity of mental disorders in Bickle and Bloom. Bickle is schizotypal. While Bloom is a full-fledged sociopath. Everything about Bloom is corporate cold. From his selection of “news,” to seduction of people, to summarization of life itself.
Masculinity In Nightcrawler
Every age has its own form of rebellion. In Nightcrawler, fierce compliance to explosive consumerism is seen as rebellious. The picture of such ironic times is naturally an ironic figure like Louis Bloom. He gives the world what it wants. Travis Bickle doesn’t want to. Bickle still holds serious dollops of confused rage. He still has tangible feelings. He achingly flaunts his ‘not fitting in,’ and finds catharsis in wishful action. But Bloom coldly uses his not fitting in to sort of fit in even better. All the trauma of growing up in a violent post-9/11 age of anxiety with pleasant, stunted expression has replaced that earlier age’s existential anxieties with a new-age cynical sociopathy. Growing up denying the element of voyeurism fuelling the constant exposure to violent, horrific images on our television and handset. A video-game world.
On a fundamental level,
Both Bickle and Bloom’s psychopathology comes from a crisis of masculinity. It is implied their sense of self-worth has taken a deep tumble from not finding suitable long-term employment. Nor the premiere education to fit this ironically masculine ‘ideal’ of an office job in the information age. Taught to put on a ‘happy face’ at all times, Travis Bickle goes down a schizoid rabbit hole in his repression. But taught to do much of the same, Louis Bloom has effectively lost connection to his own humanity. He has pushed himself to that point where he does restore in himself a sense of masculinity, but a monstrous one.
However troubling Bickle’s mental disorder is, the remnants of humanity in him do not allow him to go where Bloom does. Bloom himself is aware of that loss, but he has made peace with it as an extension of that training. In Bloom’s utter moral corruption, he provides a fuller picture of the advanced psychopathology in the Millennial information age.
This transition in psychopathology can also be seen in how Nightcrawler represents the newsroom. If we go back a few decades, we get some memorable films with similar themes: on the deterioration of news broadcasting in service of extreme consumerism. Sidney Lumet’s pitch-black humour in Network. Or Jeremy Brooks’ lightly melancholic Broadcast News. Both movies were pessimistic about the future, but their narratives were still built around a sense of rebellion in their main characters. Rebellion against the attempted destruction of the sanctity of news, and mounting corporate offensive on the right to truth and information.
By the bleak dawn of Nightcrawler, however, that sinister attempt to commodify news into television has been long successful. Perhaps even irreversibly so (at least the movie seems to suggest that). Both Bloom and Nina are caught in a paroxysm of relentless voyeurism and cut-throat corporatism, where they bargain each other’s vulnerabilities for power, which eventually graduates into a romantic abomination symbolic of its times. With no visible outlet (emotional or actionable) in sight, in Nightcrawler, the fierce compliance to the scandalous but profitable information marketplace becomes the rebellion. The only rebellion that is perhaps possible in an age where simulation has become the reality.