Visual Analysis: How ‘Nightcrawler’ (Film) Challenges Voyeurism
2014 thriller directed by Dan Gilroy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal
15 Minute Read
A lot of my previous content has been purely marketing-related, but from time to time I like to express my other interest: film and/or television - I studied both Marketing & Screen Arts at university.
If you're interested in films, filmmaking, screenwriting, directing, creative processes, visual studies, voyeurism, ocularcentrism, videography, photography, journalism, TV news, crime dramas, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, or director Dan Gilroy...then you'll most likely enjoy this blog!
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WARNING: Some Graphic Images Below
In this Visual Essay I will be looking at Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, which centres on Lou Bloom’s frantic night hunts to find and capture the goriest crime scene footage for the local television news station. I’ll be discussing how the film challenges ocularcentrism and voyeurism. I will be drawing from visual studies, the way in which vision is constructed in various ways: “'how we see, how we are able, allowed, or made to see,” (Foster 1988). A similar term is ‘scopic regime’, meaning both “what is seen and how it is seen are culturally constructed,” (Rose 2007). Much like how John Berger states that “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” (Berger 1972). Check out the trailer below:
Want to know where you can watch the show? I've listed several platforms at the end.
OCULARCENTRISM TO ANTI-OCULARCENTRISM
Some of history’s greatest figures, such as Plato, privileged the eye over the other senses, and today Western culture is one created especially for the eyes where we experience our world mainly through vision (Pallasmaa 1996). Over the past decade there’s been an emergence of visual technologies that extend the reach of the eye much further, elevating the power of the eye even more (Smith 2007). Pallasmaa stated in 1996 that “the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as a picture” - which is more true in today’s never-ending rainfall of visual images online than ever before. From television to online social media, our society is “characterised by a cancerous growth of vision measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown, and transmuting communication into a visual journey,” (Pallasmaa 1996). Western culture is dominated by an “ocularcentric paradigm, a vision-centred interpretation of truth and reality,” (Smith 2007). The Western eye is seen as objective, and images from TV news [especially] are held in high regard.
However, a closer look at some of Plato’s writings, such as the cave myth, show warnings about how easily we can be fooled by what we see, and that the eye isn’t as objective as we think (Jay 1994). We see the same warnings about vision in other Greek myths such as Narcissus, Orpheus, and Medusa (Jay 1994). We’re living in a time where there’s an increasing number of ways to articulate things visually, and we communicate more visually than ever before (take this Visual Essay for example). This oversaturation of images or the constant assault on our eyes has actually stretched the connection between ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’ to a breaking point (Rose 2007). In other words, we’re seeing anti-ocularcentrism spread throughout the Western world.
ANTI-OCULARCENTRISM & NIGHTCRAWLER
There are three key scenes in Nightcrawler which are anti-ocularcentric, or challenge the idea that seeing is knowing. Firstly the scene where Lou rearranges the magnets on a fridge to create a more dramatic shot of the shootings; secondly, when he interferes with a brutal car accident by dragging a bloodied body into the car headlights so that he could ‘get a more interesting shot’; and thirdly, when the news director outright refuses to air the truth about their ‘Horror House’ story and instead chooses to stick with the sensationalist headline to increase viewership and revenue - she says “It detracts from the story. The story is urban crime creeping into the suburbs.”
In all these scenes, the news station is not truly concerned with how the images look, but more so with how the images are looked at (Sturken and Cartwright 2001) - Spectators would look at the ‘Horror House’ footage and this looking would become intertwined with knowing. The film is therefore challenging the notion that what you see is the truth, because what you see could be something else entirely. It forces us to keep asking ourselves: What am I really seeing when I’m looking at these images? The director even stated that Nightcrawler is “certainly an indictment of local television news, but I'd like to cast a wider net in the sense that all of us really watch these images. I would hope that maybe a viewer would take it further and maybe go, ‘Why do I watch these images and how many of these images do I want to put into my own spirit?’” (Gilroy, 2014). Here Gilroy is confirming the film’s intention is to visualize the murkier side of mass media, and question the strong desire for shocking content (Kloub 2016).
IF IT BLEEDS, IT LEADS
New technology now enables anyone to publish information online which has intensified competition within the news industry, ultimately leading to the commoditization of news or information and unregulated gluttony - “If it bleeds, it leads” which is said in the film (Haraway 1991). This is clearly shown in Nightcrawler, and challenges viewers habitual belief in news stations as honest reputable entities that are delivering viewers the truth, rather than unscrupulous businesses crafting scary stories to up their ratings. Some viewers are much like the prisoners in Plato’s cave myth who were victims of an illusion of reality (Baudry 1975). It’s difficult for viewers to realize that these news programs can deceive them, and Nightcrawler reiterates the centrality of sight, our reliance on visuals, and how easily it can be manipulated or exploited by fear-based media.
For most of Nightcrawler there’s a strong sense of seeing from Lou’s perspective without actually seeing through his eyes or seeing exactly what he’s seeing. In a lot of the grotesque scenes the camera obscures the actual murders by cutting them off and only showing them through the small screen on Lou’s camera, which keeps the focus on Lou’s desire to perfectly capture the murder (Kloub 2016). On one hand it invites us to be the voyeur, but on the other it forces us to see the voyeur (Lou) while being the voyeur (Hawthorn 2003). It has a certain distantial effect whilst also playing on our voyeuristic fantasy.
THE LOOK BACK
There are three scenes in the film which aim to reflect back on viewers who are watching. The first scene is when Lou gazes directly into the camera whilst onset at the TV station, the second is when he has an outburst whilst in front of the mirror, and the third is when he looks directly into the interrogation room surveillance camera. All these scenes show Lou directly looking at us, the audience. Filmmaker Winston Dixon notices that by looking directly back at the audience, “the film acts upon us, addressing us, viewing us as we view it until the film itself becomes a gaze, rather than an object to be gazed upon,” (Dixon, 1995). The entire time we feel safe from Lou’s controlling gaze, but in these few moments we get very uncomfortable because we’re now cast under his sociopathic gaze, we’re now the prey of his predatory look (Kloub 2016).
There are several scenes in Nightcrawler which have a very strong reflexive quality: the scenes where Lou is watching TV at home, the scene where Lou looks at the picture of the city skyline backdrop and says “it looks so real on TV”, the scenes where Lou is in the TV studio with the green wall, the scene where the news director is looking at multiple screens, and other scenes where we’re watching Lou watch TV. These scenes where there’s a screen-within-a-screen, multiple screens and other cameras definitely causes us to be aware that we are indeed watching a film. We’re constantly reminded of this fact, and it makes us draw parallels between Lou watching the TV screen, and us watching Lou watching the TV screen.
Nightcrawler highlights how our ocularcentric culture may very well be our downfall. We’re so immersed in imagery, and imagery has been so closely tied to truth, that it can be difficult to comprehend that what we see isn’t actually objective and entirely truthful. What we see and how we see is culturally constructed. The many instances in the film where Lou looks directly into the camera, or where the film is self-reflexive, are moments where I felt exposed, vulnerable, and even a bit guilty. It’s kind of like that moment when you’re sitting in a car with tinted windows and someone looks directly at you whilst you’re watching them. It’s that moment of “can they see me?” The film probes at our voyeuristic tendencies, causing us to question our fascination with observing whilst being unobserved.
Jake Gyllenhaal Talking About 'Nightcrawler'
Jake Gyllenhaal: "There's something definitely disturbing about the fact that we've created him...that today's culture and our need as an audience for the type of footage that he collects...it's disturbing to think that somehow he would succeed because we're watching and then he's being paid for what he does as a result."
Academy Conversations: 'Nightcrawler'
Host: "What do you hope people are thinking about or talking about after they've seen the film?"
Dan Gilroy: "I hope that people look at the film and come away with thinking that the problem in the story is not Lou, the problem is the society that created him and rewards him."
The Real Nightcrawlers: The Raishbrook Brothers
The Raishbrook brothers, Austin and Howard, own RMG News, a news video agency that supplies local and national TV programs with footage of the chaos that plays out each night in and around cities in America. The brothers actually helped with the film Nightcrawler, as shown in the clip below:
Here's a 2008 article about the Raishbrook brothers, referred to as the "Paparazzi of Pain":
“To actually be in the middle of it all, the gangs and all. It’s just a visual feast. I swear on my life, I was put on this planet to film police chases. I swear on my life.” - Howard Raishbrook.
“If you’re not living life on the edge, you’re not living life at all. You can’t get close enough to the action for me. If you’re covering a fire and not getting burned or wet from the hoses, you’re not close enough." - Austin Raishbrook.
Below is a vlog following one of Raishbrook brothers created by an Australian vlogger, Keiran, who recently appeared on Big Brother Australia 2020:
Where to Watch 'Nightcrawler '
Below I've listed/linked [in no particular order] where to watch Nightcrawler. However, if you're reading this months after I've posted it, then some or all of the information provided below may have changed.
Rent on YouTube - A$4.99 HD, A$3.99 SD
Buy on YouTube - A$24.99 HD, $19.99 SD
Coming to Netflix - 30 day free trial (free trial seems to vary on a country-by-country basis), A$13.99 HD per month after
Amazon Prime Video - 30 day free trial, A$6.99 per month after
Rent on Amazon - A$4.99 HD
Buy on Amazon - A$19.99 HD
Rent on Google Play - $3.99 SD, $4.99 HD
Buy on Google Play - $19.99 SD, $24.99 HD
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What To Read Next
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Baudry, Louis. 1975/1985. The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema. In G. Mast, M. Cohen & L. Braudy (Eds.), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (4th edition, pp. 690-707). New York: Oxford University Press.
Berger, John. 1972. Chapter 1. In Ways of Seeing (pp. 7-34). Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston. 1995. “It Looks at You: The Returned Gaze of Cinema”. Albany: State U of New York, 1995. 2. 46-49. Print.
Foster, Hal. 1988. Vision and Visuality. Bay Press.
Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge. New York.
Jay, Martin. 1994. Downcast Eyes : The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, University of California Press. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/curtin/detail.action?docID=223794.
Kloub, Fayez. 2016. Coming From A Screen Near You: The Camera’s Gaze in the Age of Surveillance. Florida Atlantic University. Florida. Thesis.
Pallasmaa, Juhani. 1996. The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. John Wiley & Sons.
Rose, Gillian. 2007. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. SAGE Publications, London.
Smith, M. 2007. Sensory History (pp. 19-39). Oxford & New York: Berg.
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. 2001. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford University Press.