Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue.

For those curious, yes, despite having watched the movie not long ago to properly prepare for this paper, I watched it again so this can count as a proper research. Turns out, when you're dealing with an all-time favorite movie, you can seemingly watch it every day and not get tired of it. This in a way, at least at the moment, feels like a culmination of the two most essential interests in my personal life: Psychology and film. Here I am having taken a class that merges the two together, and for the final paper in said class, I get the opportunity to write about the movie that heavily inspired my intrigue with the psychological field. Now that I also know I got a strong grade on this, I'm very excited to share this with a larger audience. If for some reason the warning did not appear for you when clicking on this, please know that this analysis contains major spoilers for the film. If you have not seen Nightcrawler, please do, it's one of the all-time greats, and please watch it before reading this. If you have seen it before or are coming back to this after watching the film, I really hope you enjoy it and maybe even take some worthwhile knowledge away from it all. Thank you all for your continued support.

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“You Don’t Understand People”: Antisocial Personality Disorder in Nightcrawler

Introduction:

In the climax of Nightcrawler, protagonist Lou Bloom is confronted by his assistant Rick on his clear apathy towards a dangerous situation they find themselves in, as well as his unfeeling behavior towards people in general. A back and forth exchange between the two men is capped off with Rick stating “You don’t understand people.” to Lou. Time passes and tension builds, a shooting for the two men to film now imminent. Lou turns to Rick and responds “What if my problem wasn't that I don't understand people, but that I don't like them?” Based on dialogue, and especially when taking the actions the audience witnesses in Nightcrawler into account, it is clear something is “off” with Lou Bloom. Not just that he is a “bad person.” Something is happening beneath the surface. This paper intends to analyze Nightcrawler as a film, and Lou Bloom as a character, with the belief that it portrays someone with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). This paper will look at the components of ASPD, its symptoms and contributing factors, and then compare this information to the behavior and thought processes of Lou Bloom throughout Nightcrawler. By the end, two questions should have definitive answers to them: Can we infer that Lou Bloom has ASPD? If so, how accurately does the film portray this disorder?

Literature Review:

Before diving into ASPD, a working definition and summary is good to keep in mind. As stated in its opening paragraph in an article on the disorder from MayoClinic.org, “antisocial personality disorder, sometimes called sociopathy, is a mental disorder in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. People with antisocial personality disorder tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. They show no guilt or remorse for their behavior.” (2019) This summary of the disorder puts focus on two indicators of ASPD integral in the analysis of Lou Bloom: Individuals with ASPD have difficulty in expressing concern towards others, and these individuals also have a higher likelihood to behave violently towards themselves and others.

McGonigal & Dixon-Gordon (2020) looks into how emotional regulation is connected with both antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder (BPD), specifically “to examine independent associations of forms of anger expression and emotion dysregulation among a sample of incarcerated males.” (p. 215) This and another study that looks at incarcerated individuals with ASPD beyond providing evidence of increased violent tendencies showcases those with the disorder have difficulty with social cognition, or how one perceives the world and the needs of others being different from ourselves. This particular study stresses the importance of examining and attempting to treat the emotional complexities attributed to both disorders, as they have the distinct connection to violent behavior and thoughts. In the study, thirty different incarcerated men with either disorder were each given twelve week anger management therapy, the inmates keeping track of their fluctuating emotions through self-report measures looking at their anger and their disorder. The inmates who consented to their criminal records being reviewed had at least one violent crime on record and additionally were “presented with fairly severe anger-related issues at intake.” (p. 218) While the study would demonstrate that anger and emotional regulation are more issues in inmates with BPD, they were still present in those with ASPD. What is most notable from this study, and what will be later referenced back to in the analysis of Nightcrawler is that “when controlling for BPD features, ASPD features were only significantly related to difficulties engaging in goal-directed behavior.” (p. 222)

The difficulties with social cognition and emotional regulation in inmates is also showcased in Newbury-Helps, Feigenbaum, & Fonagy (2017). This study compares the ability of “mentalizing”, or doing tasks related to the ability of social cognition, and how it differed between forty-two non-offenders and eighty-three offenders, 65% percent of offenders meeting the criteria for ASPD. Those with ASPD in the study had issues with things such as having a “misperception of others’ intentions” (p. 4) and “difficulty inhibiting emotions” (p. 5). Tasks these individuals were asked to do included the Brief System Inventory, “a 53-item self-report symptom inventory which identifies the status of psychological symptoms over the past 7 days” (p. 9), and watching a Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition, where participants watched a fifteen minute video and are asked to identify what individuals in the video are feeling at certain moments based on facial expressions and body language. The study showed that the “pattern of results suggest that offenders find it most difficult to make accurate inferences about what others are feeling (and, to a lesser degree, what others are thinking and intending) and have a particular tendency to hypomentalize (fail to mentalize) when making these judgments.” (p. 18-19) This is important to the analysis in showing that those with ASPD have no issue with understanding how they themselves feel, instead not having a good grasp on how others feel.

Schaeffer, Petras, Ialongo, Poduska, & Kellam (2003) helps lead us into a different aspect of antisocial personality disorder: How we are able to identify predictors of the disorder. This study specifically examines how “boys with chronic high and increasing trajectories were at increased risk for conduct disorder, juvenile and adult arrest, and antisocial personality disorder.” (p. 1020) 297 boys from the first to seventh grade, primarily African-American, from 19 different schools in the Baltimore, Maryland area, were examined when compared to a control group of 343 boys from the same area. The boys were first examined by their teachers through reports on disruptive or aggressive behavior, concentration problems, or peer rejection, which occurred during that first to seventh grade age range. Years later, when the participants were ages 19 to 20, they were examined through a clinical interview to see if they fit the criteria for ASPD. Perhaps in its own ways disturbing in showing the trajectory of those with the disorder, “of the 297 control males with a fall-semester first-grade teacher rating, 22 refused to participate in the age 19–20 follow-up, 10 had died prior to the follow-up… 60 young adults either failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview or were unable to be located during the fielding period.” (p. 1023-1024) The main finding with this study was that the boys who were found to have chronic high or increasing aggression towards others were the most likely to end up developing antisocial personality disorder at an older age. The importance this will play to the analysis of Nightcrawler is as evidence of those with the disorder being people who have an inherent draw to aggressive behavior. The tendencies of those with ASPD demonstrate behaviors from an early age, the behaviors and thought processes then blossoming into a diagnosable disorder.

Hill (2003) looks into a similar field, an interest in early indicators for ASPD. As was shown in the previous study and detailed here, “persistent and pervasive aggressive and disruptive behaviours seen before the age of 11 years are strongly associated with persistence of antisocial behaviours through adolescence and into adult life.” (p. s11) The paper itself is more a collective of information gathered from other research in the past, wanting to know that while we can predict if people with indicators could later develop the disorder, then how can we measure and indicate predictors? One predictive method identified is the quality of peer relationships in a child’s developmental years. If relationships are nearly non-existent or mostly negative, then that can be an indicator due to the inability of those with the disorder to fully understand the needs and functions of their peers. Another indicator is through connecting ASPD to another disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is quoted that “children with attention deficit hyperactivity problems are ‘fledgling psychopaths’... more likely to show in adult life the combination of callousness, superficial charm and antisocial behaviour that characterizes a subgroup of adults with antisocial personality disorder.” (p. s12) Something that comes into play with Nightcrawler is the tendency for those with ASPD to be hyperactive and impulsive.

The last paper to cover is Simonoff, Elander, Holmshaw, Pickles, Murray, & Rutter (2004), which looks at the predictors of antisocial personality disorder. This specifically examines two components that can be indicators or predictors for the later development of ASPD, hyperactivity and conduct disorder, the latter of which shows “about a third of those affected have antisocial personality disorder in adult life.” (p. 118) The predictors relating to conduct disorder and later development of ASPD include high levels of aggression, the aforementioned hyperactivity, and “aloofness or the absence of friendships.” (p. 118) The results found from the paper seem to help show that those with antisocial personality disorder had signs of conduct disorder early in life. With this paper and the others having now been reviewed, we have a better understanding of the aspects that persist within antisocial personality disorder, and how they could possibly be expressed through a fictional character. Of most importance, someone with ASPD based on evidence should have trouble connecting with others through a lack of understanding those beyond themselves, and this person should also be shown to have some leaning towards more aggressive and violent behaviors than the general populous.

Nightcrawler Summary:

Now that we have an understanding of the details and functions of antisocial personality disorder, we can bring it together with Nightcrawler, first summarizing the movie, then looking at how Lou Bloom exemplifies ASPD. Nightcrawler is a 2014 thriller about Lou Bloom, a petty thief trying to make a living in Los Angeles through peddling what he steals and trying to swindle people wherever he can. Lou is introduced to the world of “nightcrawlers”, photojournalists who document incidents like car accidents and crime scenes, then selling the footage to local news stations. Lou attempts to get into the profession, at first clumsily. He faces competition from fellow nightcrawler Joe, hires an assistant named Rick, and develops a connection with Nina, the news director of a local station. As Lou gets better at his job, his actions get more drastic. He will trespass on a crime scene and tamper directly with evidence so long as it means better angles and more money. Lou eventually eliminates Joe entirely by causing him to crash his news van, even filming the crash to prove his superiority. The film climaxes with Lou documenting a home invasion in an affluent section of the city. At first, Lou hides that he saw the perpetrators and their car fleeing the scene, prolonging the story for more profit. He later instigates a shooting between police and the criminals, documenting that and an ensuing car chase. After the criminals crash, Lou lies about the driver being dead, getting Rick to film the driver up-close, resulting in him being shot by the driver, becoming more carnage to document. Lou avoids any prosecution for his crimes, now with a strong but toxic relationship with Nina, and his photojournalist company Video Production News on top in the city.

Lou Bloom/Disorder Synthesis:

With a summary to expand upon, we can look at how ASPD is portrayed through the main character of Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom. It should be noted that despite antisocial personality disorder being something indicated through childhood experiences and the circumstances of a poor upbringing, we find out neither about Lou. His past is a mystery. This stated, there is enough shown in Lou’s actions and attitude in the film alone that we can infer he has ASPD.

To begin, something made clear in the film’s very first scene is that it is not his eventual career as a photojournalist that transforms him into a manipulative, violent person. He is like this as soon as we meet him. In the opening scene, Lou is stealing bits of a fence from a train yard, and is caught in the act by a security officer. Instead of admitting to wrong-doing, Lou at first says that he did not see a sign to inform him he was trespassing. As he tries to get out of a tough situation, an expensive watch the officer is wearing catches his attention. Lou outright assaults the officer, getting away with not only the fencing, but the watch. This introduces two important aspects about Lou: He will lie or charm for things to go his way and, if necessary, he is unafraid to use violence as a means to an end. These are clear indicators of ASPD, the disregard for the safety of others, an inflated sense of superiority and being on top of any situation, as well as engaging in violent behavior towards others. That persists through the entirety of Nightcrawler, simply getting more severe and apparent through the continued conversations and actions of Lou.

The sequence that is most essential to analyze comes in the middle of the film, before we see Lou’s most drastic actions as a nightcrawler, but after we know that Lou will use harm and manipulative tactics to get what he wants. Lou has invited Nina to dinner at a Mexican restaurant where they first make small talk. Within time, Lou makes clear exactly why he wanted to meet: He wants their relationship to not just be professional, but intimate. Lou frames his desire with the lines “I want that. With you. Like you want to keep your job and your health insurance.” Nina at first is reasonably upset, but Lou keeps up with his threats, continuing to say “You’re the news director on the vampire shift at the lowest rated station in L.A. I have to think you’re invested in this transaction.” When Nina asks Lou where he got the nerve to talk like this, Lou responds by telling Nina she is still talking to him, and she can leave at any time. Lou phrases his demands as “negotiation”, and though they are clearly threats, and while we do not as an audience see the two characters being intimate, it is implied that by Lou continuing to deliver his videography exclusively to KWLA for the rest of the film, he got from Nina what he wanted.

This scene represents Lou at his most directly manipulative, and despite the clear disinterest that Nina shows to the proposition, Lou uses his knowledge of Nina’s work history as justification for him to get what he desires. He shows no care for what Nina wants, and perhaps even more menacing, he seems to believe that by thinking Nina has a “choice”, that she wants what he wants. Lou having ASPD represents the disorder not just in how he acts but how he behaves. He mimics information that he accumulated through a summer intro to business class he mentions to Nina that he took, speaking in a “professional” way that people “should” communicate, but his disorder elicits him to outwardly manipulate and remain unfeeling towards others. Lou is not changed by his work, instead entering a cutthroat profession that benefits someone like him. He negotiates, haggles, and when essential to succeeding, threatens and elicits violence upon others.

As for whether Lou is a quality representation of someone with ASPD, we can refer back to the studies covered. McGonigal & Dixon-Gordon (2020) brought up how those with ASPD can have trouble focusing on goal-oriented tasks when angered. This is exactly what we see with Lou Bloom. Lou is normally an intensely goal-oriented individual, seemingly always having a quote about the importance of teamwork or the keys to a successful business at the ready. However, this is often referred to in a manner that feels very detached, Lou sounding like a parrot more than anything. When this slew of information comes to a stop is when Lou is angered or disadvantaged. This primarily happens after Lou misses the opportunity to photograph a multi-car accident, Joe getting great footage, and the relation between him and Nina put on thin ice. When Lou hears about the story while watching the news in the morning, he screams and shatters a mirror in his bathroom. The initially unfeeling, goal-oriented Lou can go out the window as soon as his attempted charms, manipulations, and methods stop working.

The behavior of Lou also lines up to what is showcased in the other studies. Schaeffer, Petras, Ialongo, Poduska, & Kellam (2003) discussed an inherent attraction to those with ASPD to act aggressively. Lou demonstrates this through his pressuring of Nina into an intimate relationship, his persistent refusal to hear the complaints and concerns of Rick while still preaching “cooperation”, and his elimination of Joe as competition. Newbury-Helps, Feigenbaum, & Fonagy (2017) also showcased the significance in the lack of understanding or having no direct interest or ability to understand the needs of others, something Lou demonstrates. Referring back to the opening of this paper, in the climax of the film, Lou outright states to Rick that the well-being of others does not matter to him. To bring up another moment in this sequence, when Rick comments on how there are people in a building that could possibly be hurt in an ensuing shoot-out, instead of reciprocating Rick’s concern for potential death, Lou simply replies that he counts six people specifically. In this way, we can infer just how detached Lou is from others. He does not see people as other human beings, instead numbers with faces, things to film.

Lastly, the studies of Hill (2003) and Simonoff, Elander, Holmshaw, Pickles, Murray, & Rutter (2004) discussed hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and an aloofness or absence of friendships. Again, all of these are present within Lou. He constantly keeps himself busy, always dedicating whatever he does to either making money or improving the ability to keep up with the demands of his job. Based on what we see of his life in the film, he has no downtime. Lou is also impulsive despite positioning himself as a very thoughtful individual. While making it seem like being a nightcrawler was a job he was destined to take up, the passing comment he makes to Nina about taking a business course over the past summer hints to the audience that his fixation on business tactics is a more recent phenomenon. It is something that helps him improve the negotiation and manipulation that he indulges in through ASPD. Lou being aloof is something also demonstrated, where before the connections he forms with Rick and Nina, he does not have any real meaningful friends or relationships. Any time Lou is more forthcoming with others is not because he wants to get to know them better just because. He does it for personal gain. His relationships are like transactions. Others have something Lou wants, Nina being a steady person for Lou to make money from and help his work become well-known, and Rick offering Lou a means to lighten his workload. Lou in return has something they want, Nina wanting footage for her station, and Rick wanting any job that could offer him a steady flow of money. Lou will still remind nearly everyone around that they are expendable. He will always do as he sees fit.

Conclusion:

Based on research, as well as what we see of Lou Bloom’s behavior, Nightcrawler not only features a character that can be inferred to have antisocial personality disorder, but is an instance of the disorder being mostly accurately portrayed. That said, it should be important to note that with ASPD and any disorder being portrayed in film, there is no “one size fits all” portrayal. The effects of a mental disorder can vary from person to person. While most individuals with antisocial personality disorder will likely be more aggressive, manipulative, and violent than a “regular” person, not everyone with ASPD is aggressive, manipulative, and violent. Just as important as the recognition of this is the pursuit to identify individuals like Lou Bloom early in their lives, not to judge or ridicule them, but seeking means to assist them in their daily lives. Even someone like Lou Bloom deserves at least an attempt to understand and treat. Future films and media at large can further strive to properly research and better portray mental disorders.

References:

Hill, J. (2003). Early identification of individuals at risk for antisocial personality disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry, 182(S44), s11–s14. doi.org/10.1192/bjp.182.44.s11

Mayo Clinic. (2019, December 10). Antisocial personality disorder. Retrieved from www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/antisocial-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353928

McGonigal, P. T., & Dixon-Gordon, K. L. (2020). Anger and Emotion Regulation Associated With Borderline and Antisocial Personality Features Within a Correctional Sample. Journal of Correctional Health Care, 26(3), 215–226. doi.org/10.1177/1078345820937775

Newbury-Helps, J., Feigenbaum, J., & Fonagy, P. (2017). Offenders With Antisocial Personality Disorder Display More Impairments in Mentalizing. Journal of Personality Disorders, 31(2), 232–255. doi.org/10.1521/pedi_2016_30_246

Schaeffer, C. M., Petras, H., Ialongo, N., Poduska, J., & Kellam, S. (2003). Modeling Growth in Boys’ Aggressive Behavior Across Elementary School: Links to Later Criminal Involvement, Conduct Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder. Developmental Psychology, 39(6), 1020–1035. doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.39.6.1020

Simonoff, E., Elander, J., Holmshaw, J., Pickles, A., Murray, R., & Rutter, M. (2004). Predictors of antisocial personality. British Journal of Psychiatry, 184(2), 118–127. doi.org/10.1192/bjp.184.2.118

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10/10

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