Psychopaths can be charming, says director

Psychopaths can be charming, says director
Dan Gilroy (far left), who directed Jake Gyllenhaal (left) as a psychopath in Nightcrawler, says the actor created a character that was just creepy enough to be interesting.

Movies perpetuate a myth about psychopaths, says writer-director Dan Gilroy, the man behind the thriller Nightcrawler.

Psychopaths are rarely loner outcasts, he thinks. Most are like Lou Bloom, Nightcrawler's lead character - charming, polite, even charismatic.

"Movies portray psychopaths in a black- and-white way, that they are so easily identifiable because they are so evil and that there are not so many of them," says Gilroy, 55, on the telephone from New York.

He is sympathetic to the theory that psychopathic traits - lack of empathy and remorse, narcissism, manipulativeness - exist in everyone, and that business leaders and politicians rise to the top because they score higher on the psychopathic scale than their rivals.

"I believe there are many, many psychopaths and sociopaths walking among us. We all have a bit of it, and the ones who have it under control are very successful people," he says.

Bloom (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) thinks nothing of invading the privacy of crime and accident victims, and as a result succeeds in the "nightcrawler" game, shooting tapes for sale to television stations.

What keeps audiences hooked on the maladjusted Bloom is the contradiction between his actions and in the way he presents himself, says Gilroy. He credits the actor with creating a character that was just creepy enough to be interesting, a bundle of contradiction that is both believable and compelling to watch.

"When Jake played the character, he was all about finding what is is that made him more like us, more human.

"He's always smiling, and respectful and polite. He's so much like us, and so much not like us," he says.

Gilroy says his film is a cautionary tale about unchecked free-market capitalism and how it leads to the loss of humanity.

For Bloom, "capitalism is his religion", so it was appropriate that his speech reflect his faith. The funniest moments in the film happen when Bloom's dark deeds are justified with a line that could have come from a corporate handbook.

"I researched human resource manuals from multinational corporations; he speaks like a multinational corporation. His speech is corporate mumbo jumbo," he says. "I believe that if we came back in 10 years, Jake's character will be running a corporation."

As Hollywood gears up for Oscar campaign season, there is buzz that Gyllenhaal has a chance at a Best Actor nomination, while the film could garner a Best Screenplay or Best Picture nod. Gilroy was previously credited as co-writer on action thriller The Bourne Legacy (2012) and adventure fantasy flick The Fall (2006). "We're definitely in the race. We are all out there trying to publicise the film as much as possible. But we are a lower- budget film and we don't have the marketing budgets the other films do," he says.

The film portrays the news media as manufacturers of outrage feeding the paranoid fantasies of its audience.

This is not a scenario from a far-off, Orwellian future. He sees it every day in Los Angeles, where he lives with wife, actress Rene Russo, he says. She plays station news manager Nina Romina, the buyer of Bloom's footage.

"The Los Angeles television market really is that bad. TV viewership is going down and they are showing much more graphic, lurid stories to fill out a narrative of fear. But that is also going on on a global level. Graphic, lurid images are becoming commonplace," he says. A switch was flipped in the 1970s when television newsrooms, once loss-making bastions of integrity, were forced to become profitable, he notes.

As reality grows ever more dire, audiences flock to optimistic, wish-fulfilment depictions of journalism, such as Aaron Sorkin's TV drama The Newsroom. It is about a fictional station staffed by principled employees, especially in the character of news anchor Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels.

In America, journalism is viewed as "holy", and the show mirrors that belief.

"We like to think that there are people like Jeff Daniels' character, fighting the good fight. But my feeling is that we are losing that fight."

Nightcrawler is showing in cinemas now.

johnlui@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 10, 2014.
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