Nightcrawler and the Diagnosis of a Sociopath

Posted by Liam Dodds on November 01, 2014 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , ,

An image of Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler

Googling popular culture depictions of a sociopath is an interesting experience. From the expected, Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, to the unexpected, Don Draper, Barney Stinson, Jess, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Tom Hiddleston, the cultural understanding, conception and popular application of the term sociopath is… somewhat mixed, at best. Peter Bradshaw, in reviewing Jake Gyllenhaal’s ravenous portrayal of Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, describes the character as “a grade-one sociopath wired to the moon.” As an audience then, what should we expect from Gyllenhaal’s performance? What does a sociopath look like, for a start? Should I be concerned, even? Am I a sociopath? So many questions to answer. Do your research, Sherlock demands. So I did.

A sociopath is commonly defined as a person with a psychopathic personality whose behaviour is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience. So far, so Gyllenhaal, right? Louis Bloom is a “stringer,” a photojournalist with a police scanner darkly patrolling the hyperreal streets of nocturnal Los Angeles searching for his next lead. Bloom keeps irregular working hours, he doesn’t appear to sleep, nor does he appear to eat, although he does once, maybe, and he might even drink something at the same time. Bloom maybe, kind-of, manipulates his sometimes-employer, Nina, into a friends-with-benefits type of mutually-beneficial business agreement where she gets exclusive content for her station and he gets something in return, but none of the icky stuff is ever portrayed on screen, so I can’t really say for sure. His only other human contact is conducted under such a weight of transactional pseudo-jargon of leverage and political manoeuvring that it’s difficult to tell whether Bloom is strictly professional or socially inept, or whether he has differing abilities regarding social communication and flexibility of thought. He’s antisocial, alright! He waters his plant, he records the news features he contributes footage towards, and… that’s it! That is his entire life. No friends, no family. He’s antisocial. Bottom line. Ok, so I’m glad we’ve established that, but lets delve a little deeper.

Antisocial Personality Disorder is characterised by a long-standing pattern of disregard for other people’s rights, where an individual diagnosed with this condition would often cross the line and would act to violate the rights of others. Individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder frequently lack empathy, and tend to be callous, cynical and contemptuous of the feelings, rights, and suffering of others. These individuals also demonstrate an inflated and arrogant self-appraisal, or portray a self-assured and, perhaps, superficial charm. Through his manner and his actions, Bloom demonstrates many of these characteristics. For instance, as the first respondent at the scene of a triple-homicide, Bloom realises that one of the ‘victims’ in his developing narrative is still alive, but, rather than report this to the authorities or seek help, Bloom simply edits the footage to remove the evidence so that his footage can portray the most financially lucrative narrative imaginable. On another occasion, Bloom arrives to the scene of a head-on collision between two vehicles only to find that his perfect shot (he’s focusing on framing) is ruined by the pesky body of the victim being sort-of behind the vehicle and in awful semi-darkness. Awkward. Unperturbed, Bloom simply drags the body into shot in order to achieve his grisly wide-angled tableaux, framed by windscreen shards, crumpled metal and pools of unbroken streetlight. So far, so callous.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler attending a triple homicide

However, in the studied appraisal of the value of his work, Bloom is unerringly accurate. Bloom identifies that local news broadcasters devote a disproportionate amount of their airtime to the reportage of violent crime and, in a city where incidents of violent crime are actually decreasing, Bloom realises that his footage is becoming increasingly valuable. Furthermore, despite his initial naivety and haphazardness, his substandard technology and the intense competition, Bloom is able to become successful: Bloom learns from his initial mistakes and is able to provide unfiltered and exclusive content to an ailing station and its exposed news director during the crucial and career-defining ‘sweeps’ season. As such, Bloom is able to demonstrate responsiveness, an ability to learn from experience and to exercise good judgement, both in general interpersonal relations and in relation to external stimuli, which demonstrates characteristics and abilities not normally associated with diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Furthermore, in terms of the adequacy of his motivation for the antisocial behaviour he portrays, how about an ‘unorthodox’ schooling and the social and political disadvantages that may bring? In the opening of the movie, Bloom is shown using industrial wire cutters to systematically pick his way through a chain-link fence next to an industrial railway line. Initially, as an audience, we are forced to presume that Bloom is attempting to create a passage through so that he may cross, and whatever that may entail. However, he is interrupted in this process by a security officer and, placing the wire cutters in the back of his vehicle next to a large section of rolled chain-link fencing, Bloom begins to approach the guard. Bloom identifies that the man is wearing an unregulated uniform, demonstrative of an employee of an independent company tasked to stop individuals trespassing on the line. Bloom appraises the guard further: he is considerably older, perhaps independently trained, and wearing an unnecessarily extravagant wristwatch completely superfluous for his line of work, which perhaps indicates that he spends most of his shift looking at his watch, counting time, rather than patrolling. As such, Bloom physically assaults him and, as we discover in the next scene, steals his watch. But, before the jump cut to focus upon his newly wrist-watched wrist, we hear Bloom say that he had considered becoming a security guard for an independent firm himself, and, he implies, had found it difficult to break into that sector. From these statements, and Bloom’s subsequent description of his education, it may be safe to assume then that he has little in way of formal qualifications. Bloom states that his repeated mantra of “finding a role that he can grow into, as well as a career that he loves,” is the consequence of countless hours of independent and unguided online research, through which he learns to recite the teachings of self-help manuals and online business management courses. However, perhaps this verbal self-stimulation is not the affectation of a pathological egocentric, but rather, the logical outcome of an attempt to make sense of the confusing and abstract realm of social communication through the more binary transactional understanding of conversation as a means to an end, as an episode of distinct collaboration between two mutually-interested parties who share a particular goal or interest? Rather than evidence of a lack of a sense of self then, characterised by feelings of emptiness, impulsive behaviour and a pattern of intense but unstable relationships, perhaps these cold and calculated exchanges could be viewed as evidence of Bloom’s attempt to control the variables of an otherwise confusing and unbounded relational space?

An image of an outlawed Halloween costume depicting a male wearing a mask

Moral panic with regard to the cultural portrayal of mental health issues has abounded recently. If you are reading this, hopefully, presumably, this means that you survived yet another Halloween without succumbing to the zombified hordes, spectral apparitions, or unshackled skeletons that are typical of the season. Congratulations! But, bubbling beneath the surface of such classic horror-movie fun lay concerns regarding the appropriateness of costumes depicting ‘victims of mental health’. Whether it is appropriate to dress up as an escaped lunatic from an asylum is not particularly for me to say. I wonder, for instance, if the straightjacket and mask of Hannibal Lecter has passed from all specific cultural reference into the realm of generic trope, perhaps in part, due to copyright infringements outlawing any reference to Lecter in the packaging and thus hastening the sublimation of the reference, rather than being representative of a specific and locatable cultural fear of a physically restrained lunatic. Conversely, if the appropriateness of the costume relies on its particular reference to Silence of the Lambs, this seems, almost, perniciously snobbish, concerned primarily with maintaining an appropriate level of cultural appreciation and knowledge of the subject, rather than the appropriate portrayal of mental health.  The cultural understanding and identification of the term sociopath is of an individual who is dangerous partly, or even wholly, because of an undiagnosed or untreated mental health condition. Louis Bloom is no psychopath, nor is he a sociopath. In truth, Gyllenhaal’s character conflates the descriptions of a number of interrelated mental health conditions. Bloom is resourceful. Bloom is persistent. Above all, Bloom is ambitious, driven, and career-orientated. You may not like his methods, but those methods are primarily representative of the amoral culture of fear in which he operates, an industry he is forced to participate in in order to acquire value for his work and by extension his own self. If necessary, in order to locate Bloom within the context of a cinematic House of Horrors, a more accurate comparison would be the Vampire: Bloom stalks the evening streets in search of the many, many, victims he requires for his primary sustenance, blood, after all “if it bleeds…” Groan. The comparison appears reductive precisely because it is, offering nothing to a discussion of the complex nuances or particularities of the character. “Sociopath” offers nothing more, offers nothing to a complex discussion of the character, and does nothing more that propagate the negative conception of mental health in the collective consciousness. Perhaps, if we were to take time to consider the use of such pejorative terms in the description of the characters portrayed on screen, the conception of mental health as an object of fun, a costume worn and discarded with ease, would also begin to change, and we may begin to see people, not labels.



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