Nightcrawler

This movie is a goddam gem.

Briefly: a drifter falls into a career as a night-shift ambulance chaser, capturing video footage for the morning news. Not exactly the most incredible premise, but it’s utterly compelling in its execution. And yeah, I know it came out in 2014, but I am barely keeping up with anything these days.

In my spare time, I’m a neuroscience researcher, and I’ve been working on a project dealing with psychopathy. The more I’ve read about psychopaths, the more disappointed I’ve become with how they’re typically portrayed in movies. In the movies, they are intelligent, charming, and sadistic. All these things aren’t strictly untrue, but they’re missing the bigger points: they’re smart but usually are drifters who can’t hold down a job or maintain any sort of life; their intensity can be charming, but it can also be profoundly unsettling, especially in their social interactions, their eye contact, etc.; they can be violent, but it’s as often driven by indifference, a willingness to use whatever tools are needed to get something, as it is by a desire to hurt somebody.

Basically, psychopaths aren’t criminal masterminds, but rather are people missing any sort of internal emotional landscape. As such, they act without considering the emotional context of themselves or others. They lie, because hey, why not? And they don’t feel guilt about being caught lying, because why would they? Most eerie to me is the disconnect between what they say and their poverty of feelings. To misquote smarter people than me, psychopaths know the words but not the music: they can tell you about turning over a new page, about how important it is to set goals or how compassion and communication are the basis of a healthy relationship, how they have learned their lesson, and then they’re back in jail after two days for having gone right back to their antisocial behaviour. Talk therapy with them can actually worsen outcomes, because they learn the jargon and the arguments but don’t take any of it to heart.

So while Nightcrawler isn’t a perfect depiction of a psychopath, it’s far better than virtually any movie or TV show I’ve seen. The intense, unsettling stare. The profound off-ness of his emotional reactions. The inappropriateness of his behaviours, going way over the line not because he’s evil, but because he wants something and the means to getting it are irrelevant. The love of jargon. The start as a drifter, and the “omnivorous” criminal lifestyle. It falls apart in his ability to follow through on plans, to hold down this particular job, but mostly it’s an excellent portrayal of a personality disorder that’s always turned into a caricature.

Between this movie and Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal is on a real tear for me.

There are lots of reasons to like the movie, though, outside of being a complete nerd for psychopathologies. The cinematography is stellar, especially in the driving scenes. Riz Ahmed is outstanding in the role of Gyllenhaal’s intern/assistant, a character both pathetic and empathetic. The movie remains tightly constrained, with basically four characters to it, and is all the better for it. The climax builds perfectly and plays out better than I could have imagined. Using the amoral world of TV news (“if it bleeds, it leads”) to describe capitalism may be an outdated metaphor, and it might have been better suited if set in an earlier time period, but really, that’s the worst I can say about this movie. Go watch it, if you haven’t already yet.

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