One of the most self-defining and effective shots in Nightcrawler is also one of its most simply constructed. The camera is beneath the front window of a car, but the position isn’t revealed until the next shot when it cuts away to a wider revealing angle. Lou Bloom’s mug is in center frame, and there is a spot on the camera. He reaches down and wipes it off. Now it’s clean, now it’s perfect, now it’s how Lou wants it to be. Because of the angle, he’s performing the act not just on the car but on the audience. That brief moment right there encapsulates Lou Bloom as a character, his desires, and what the film is about.
Throughout the film lies an intersection between the audience, Lou Bloom, and what he wants us to see through his camera. This film manages a balance of being about quite a few different things – the dark side of the Internet age, the ethics of television journalism, the perversion of the American dream, a universal character study of loneliness – but most of all it is about the seductive relationship between man and the camera, and how one man finds success in it.
The very act of recording something on camera is the act of capturing the moment and manipulating it to your own perceptions. Writer/director Dan Gilroy seems to understand why we live in a microwave generation where 10-second clips and photographs are so prominent on the Internet – the recording of one’s life allows a certain amount of authorship and control. He doesn’t judge but he does take a close look at it and through Lou acknowledges that there is a certain degree of artistry to it all. With cinematographer Robert Elswit, he uses the self-reflexive technique of filming several moments through Lou’s camera to bring the audience into his psyche. In some ways Lou embodies the dark ambition of the American dream inside us all.
For Lou, it’s not about some sort of fantastical separation from real life, it’s that there is an elevating effect when it is being recorded. Note how he sees the photographed backdrop of the city behind the news desk and remarks with equal parts romanticism and despair that “It looks so real on camera.” After speaking with her, he sits down at the news desk, and the shot cuts to a closeup of a camera’s image of him at the desk, smiling satisfactorily at the audience. He looks so real on camera.
The lengths Lou is willing to go to manipulate things around him for his work is amplified parallel to his success. In one scene he gets to a car wreck before the police and moves a body so he can get a reaction-inducing shot of both dead bodies. Twice in the film he records a person dying because he – and we complicit -know it’s the most captivating thing he can record. There’s a dark part of us that wants to see it on camera, and Lou knows that.
In the climactic scene, when the cops approach the Chinese restaurant that the two killers are in, we see a good 90% of it all unfold through a camera –Lou and Rick’s cameras to be specific. This is all part of Lou’s orchestration. This is his show, his grand opus, and we are going to see it how he intends it to be seen. You can’t help but admire the control he’s had over the design of the whole event. Nina – in a deliciously satirical scene – calls it his masterpiece, and it’s hard to argue that she’s wrong.
Throughout this film, Gilroy and Elswit keep the audience right in line with Lou Bloom through their simple yet immensely effective framing choices. Like Bloom, they are meticulous orchestrators of their story and our reactions to it. There is a belief that Lou seems to hold true, and because of how the film is framed we start to agree with it: Life looks so real on camera, even the death of it.