The Writer-Director Of "Nightcrawler" Explains Its Disturbing Sexual Coercion Subplot
Dan Gilroy breaks down the upsetting relationship between Jake Gyllenhaal’s and Rene Russo's characters for BuzzFeed News. WARNING: All of the spoilers ahead!
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins Nightcrawler as a poor, thieving sociopath and ends it as a thriving, entrepreneurial one. "The character of Lou has no arc," Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler's director and writer, told BuzzFeed News. "It's almost like the bough of a ship cutting through water. Rather than the world bending the character, the character bends the world."
Nightcrawler is about Lou's unlikely rise as an ambulance-chasing videographer who learns how to both film tragedies and help create them. He has only two sustained human connections that we see, and both are disturbing. One is with his intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), whom he lectures with self-help speak; the other is with Nina (Rene Russo), the news director at the Los Angeles station where he peddles his (at first) amateurish but alluringly graphic news footage.
Along the way, Nightcrawler makes points about what news is (and is not), and how professional drive, ambition, and the way we express those things can be toxic.
The movie also touches on — but doesn't fully unpack — sexual transactions that might be more insidious than the word transactions implies. In one scene in Nightcrawler, Lou takes Nina out to dinner. She is aware of his strangeness —the emaciated Gyllenhaal plays Lou as a coiled, wide-eyed, glib weirdo who is imitating human behavior — but because he's been doing good work for her, she has obliged his invitation. In their dark, funny interaction, Lou tells Nina that he wants a "physical relationship" with her, or he will sell his footage elsewhere, jeopardizing her job. "You're threatening me," she says. "I'm negotiating," he answers. She gets increasingly angry: "Jesus Christ. Friends don't pressure friends to fucking sleep with them."
A bit later in the movie, when Lou is negotiating the price for exclusive video of a triple-homicide home invasion, he lists his demands for money, credit, and access to her colleagues. And the kicker: "And the last thing I want, Nina, is for you to do the things I ask you to do when we're alone together in your apartment. Not like the last time."
Thus, leaving a pit in the stomach.
Though the movie is in part about the spectacle of violence, Nightcrawler doesn't tell us what to think here by showing us anything. Is Lou a rapist? Is Nina complicit here? Where does sexual blackmail end and assault begin?
For her part, Russo (who is married to Gilroy) talked to BuzzFeed News' Adam B. Vary about Nina's larger dilemmas about working with Lou: "I thought, OK, if you were a 60-year-old woman, if you were in jeopardy of losing your health insurance, if you were alone in the world and about to lose your job and god knows where they're going to ship you off to, I mean, what would you do?"
It's a lot to think about, but Gilroy discussed what we're to make of all of this with BuzzFeed News.
What was your original conception of Nina's relationship to Lou when you were writing Nightcrawler's screenplay?
Dan Gilroy: In my mind, I did see Nina as a victim. I saw Nina as a very strong-willed, very professional woman in a very competitive job who found herself up against somebody who had power over her and made her do things against her will.
Is that how it played out in the performance?
DG: Rene, if she were on the phone with us, would say, "Yes, there is coercion," in the sense that something has been broached that 1) She hadn't thought of, and 2) Is probably something she's not desiring to do, which is, obviously, to have a sexual relationship with him. But Rene, I thought, took that to a very interesting place, where she again went back into the character and said, "Wait a minute. This is a woman who's not just vulnerable; this is a woman who's been crossing moral lines for a while because of her job and the situation of where she is in her life. And this is something that could work to her advantage."
Does Nina herself recognize right and wrong anymore?
DG: Rene very much feels that, for her character's standpoint, she was looking at him like a child. Like, OK, have your tantrum. I'm getting everything I want from you. You're bringing all this great footage, you're bringing my ratings up. And if sex is something that is now demanded of that relationship, I've already crossed that line.
But the movie makes clear that Nina is being extorted sexually.
DG: She's vulnerable on one level, but she's calculating in another. She's done the equation that sex is not something that's going to stop her from getting what she wants. It is coercion, it is coercion. It's complicated!
You very deliberately decided not to show what goes on between Lou and Nina outside of work after that dinner scene — like, we don't see them in her apartment. Why?
DG: Yeah, and there were financiers that wanted that scene. There were a couple of people who said they would finance this movie if we put that scene in. And I said I wasn't going to write that scene, nor was I going to shoot it. I said there was nothing we could show that would match what each person in the audience was imagining was going on behind closed doors. Because when I watch that scene when he says, "... not like the last time," I think that shudder and gasp that each one of us is running through in our own head — what that might actually mean, what things she didn't do.
Because it's one thing to be transactional in your job, and to want your health insurance and your salary. But it's another thing to see someone have sex with someone they don't want to have sex with. Wouldn't that scene have looked like rape?
DG: I always imagined that they'd had sexual relations to some degree, and in the course of that, he asked something of her in a sexual nature that was a line she didn't want to cross.
Toward the end of the movie, Nina and Lou feel very much aligned: She tells a naysaying colleague who hates what Lou does that "Lou is inspiring all of us to reach a little higher." Have they come to an accord?
DG: They both seem to have reached a point — he through some sort of maladjusted DNA, she perhaps through a long slog of a career where she is finally hanging on by her fingernails and is finally getting some security now — where they're unencumbered by the usual human emotions and connections that the rest of us have. And it's all about business. They've shed their human form, and have been creatures of some sort, driven purely by money. They have a very odd, but, I think, deep and powerful relationship, on the basis of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.