Lou Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler, does a pretty convincing Daniel Plainview impression. In order to amplify my generation and its enduring legacy, let’s go ahead and call Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Plainview in There Will Be Blood legendary. Although it borders on farcical in the final scene (the throes of his ravenous power quest), as he’s threatening to drink everyone’s milkshake and bludgeoning Paul Dano with a bowling pin, it’s fair to call it one of the most powerful, convincing performances in film history. Not convincing because Plainview feels realistic, but because he’s as close to a mythological devil as we’ve ever seen on screen. This frightening representation of evil, even if it’s most robust in an American culture where his particular manifestation of greed is most prevalent, resonates on a deep, deep level. And perhaps I’m universalizing the strength of his performance too much, which in itself would reflect the type of American exceptionalism that Plainview epitomizes. My view is paramount. It is so plain as to be absolutely certain.
Yet is it fair to label Plainview evil? Given the circumstances, and what his environment should naturally produce, he simply capitalizes on what’s presented to him more successfully than anyone else. He is brought up in a world that privileges competition, and he becomes purely competitive. He adapts to the rules of his world in the most fit way possible, and therefore, we might argue, in the most natural way imaginable. From a Nietzschean perspective, any attempt to call him evil is petty envy and, moreover, a most despicable weakness. True wickedness, in fact. Why would we deny him his strength, he who has transcended our pathetic moral values, which were only constructed to enervate true strength and protect the weak? If anything, we should hand the world over to the likes of Daniel Plainview. Then we might see humanity flourish. We might galvanize our evolution instead of stunting it (perhaps even halting it).
But now we’ve gone and mythologized Plainview as a necessary hero, a promise of transcendence rather than a harbinger of apocalypse. What’s Lou Bloom got to do with any of this wayward analysis?
Call it an aborted thought. I watched Nightcrawler last week and lazily scrawled “Lou Bloom vs Daniel Plainview” on a scrap piece of paper. The other note I scribbled was Bloom’s take on FEAR: false evidence appearing real. I planned to develop an elaborate comparison between the two. I’ve lost the inspiration since.
I will say that Bloom is another brilliant, ruthless character, one whom we could easily cast off as psychotic, or more mildly, misanthropic. It’s likely fairer to call him opportunistic, perhaps even truly American; if we’re willing to push the truth of American ideology to its logical conclusions in how it’s manifest in discerning individuals. His satisfaction comes in the quest itself. Sure, he accumulates wealth and power, and he does so through violent means, but there’s no real end to the game he’s playing. The world invented the game, not Bloom. He’s just brave enough to play it. The game demands that we win at the expense of others. It is zero sum. Compassion? Cooperation? Criminal lies that distract from the real spirit of the thing. Simply because the rest of us are too comfortable and cowardly to participate in capitalism’s Colosseum doesn’t mean these two figures are wrong. The thing that makes them so revolting (and, of course, terribly enthralling) is that they’re so right.