What is work ethic? It’s the concept that our motivation, not financial compensation, is the value of hard work. We work hard because it makes us better people. As the protagonist of Nightcrawler (2014) Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) tells us, “Why you pursue something is equally as important as what you pursue.” But what happens when your motivation is twisted?
Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller sees Lou, a weird, aimless loner, finding his purpose as a stringer, someone who films violent accidents and crime scenes before selling the footage to television news. As the film progresses, he starts manipulating crime scenes for more dynamic shots, arranging family photos around bullet holes and dragging corpses into better light. When I first saw Nightcrawler, I was a bright-eyed 17-year-old with a head full of unwritten stories and undiagnosed mental illness. I was in a school that enforced a rigorous work ethic from day one—comparing pupils’ results against one another, singling out students who were lagging behind, grading us twice a year on our effort in class. I would always get nervous taking home my report cards, fearfully ruminating on how adults had assessed me, dozens of times over, on something so personal. It felt like I was being graded as a person.
I want to be a writer. I’ve been telling people that for years now, and it never fails to sound like I’m a six-year-old saying they want to be an astronaut when they grow up. I want to be a writer because there’s nothing I love more than storytelling, and there’s nothing that affects me more than a good story. I’m constantly told that to succeed in the incredibly competitive industry, I’ll have to be adaptive, committed and thick-skinned. When people tell me this, it usually sounds like they don’t believe I can make it. And most of the time, I agree with them.
The anxiety of working hard (or hardly working)
Like many people, I’m living with an anxiety disorder. I struggle to shake the negative fixations that come into my head. I hear daily, “You don’t work hard enough,” “Everyone else is doing better than you,” and “You’re a bad person.” Every step I make trying to pursue a writing career only makes me see how overwhelmingly colossal the world of writing is, and how insignificantly tiny I am in it. I spend hours trawling through Twitter, comparing myself to the dynamic and confident profiles of people more successful than me. Every day I see countless people working harder and writing better, and I convince myself I don’t deserve success anyway.
As I’ve grown older, I keep coming back to Nightcrawler, and I find my viewing experience is markedly different each time. My worldview has changed after spending time in the working world, putting in the hours with jobs I don’t get much out of. I have become more aware of the inequalities that exist in a capitalist system, and I’ve questioned whether hard work always equals wealth and happiness. But these realizations are countered by the anxiety that to be a proper adult, I have to learn how to work hard and not complain. Working jobs you don’t care about is part of life, and I tell myself I have to get used to it.
Each successive watch of Nightcrawler marks me having made small steps toward writing as a career, but any progress I make is dwarfed by the growing realization that the industry is more gigantic and overwhelming than I ever realized. I see the successes of my peers, wonder what they’re doing right that I’m not, and I punish myself for not doing as well as them.
For both these reasons, whenever I revisit Nightcrawler, I am more and more anxious that I don’t work as hard as Lou. On my first watch I saw his abhorrence of character, focusing on everything he did wrong. But with every rewatch, I’m more aware of what he does right, and what he’s rewarded for—a good work ethic.
As Nightcrawler progresses, Lou’s eager-to-please enthusiasm is stripped back to reveal a twisted psychopath who will relentlessly pursue success without caring how many people he abuses along the way. By the end of the film, Lou has a successful, thriving business, as well as a body count. It is a film with a seedy heart and a bleak view of humanity. The harder Lou works, the more of a monster he reveals himself to be. Most audiences wish someone would stop him.
So why does some small part of me wish I could be more like Lou?
How Lou manipulates work ethic
Nobody works as hard as Lou. Professionalism is a framework through which every one of his affectations and mannerisms are filtered. “There is no better way to achieve job security than by making yourself an indispensable employee,” he tells his intern Rick (Riz Ahmed) as they are running away from a violent crime scene. But Lou has to have learned this from somewhere. He may be a complete outsider, alien to empathy and compassion, but he’s adopted the jargon and values of our work-dedicated society, a culture which bases self-improvement on hard work. Because in what other way than through work can Lou prove he has a place in our society?
In the opening scenes, Lou tells a potential employer his motto: “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.” It’s a bizarre saying, clunky and inauthentic. Like Lou himself, it signals its own artificiality. But it makes clear his ideology—Lou doesn’t think he’s owed anything unless he works for it. Lou knows that employers want to hear what he’s saying, and his motto is carefully designed to make you like and respect him.
I can relate. My greatest anxiety is wondering what people think of me. I bend over backwards trying to please others and constantly fixate on how I’ve come across to them. To be fair, Lou doesn’t care if people like him. As he tells Rick, he doesn’t like other people. His sycophantic tendencies, complimenting the TV news team, adopting professional lingo, pitching himself to any potential employer, are all there to try make people respect him, so that he be rewarded and thus further chase social mobility.
Lou wants people to like him so he can exert power over them. He doesn’t worry about being a bad person. He knows what he wants and embarks on a relentless mission of manipulation to get it. That focus, that unshakeable determination, the knowledge of how to play the game of capitalism, isn’t just necessary to find success—it’s seen by our society as admirable. The first time I watched Nightcrawler, I mistakenly thought the only problem with Lou’s story was that he is a bad person, a hard worker goes too far. He’s an immoral outsider in a fair system. But any system that permits abhorrent behaviour implicitly endorses it.
Every day, we’re learning more about the abuses of power in the media and film industry, the toxicity of certain individuals and the institutional injustices that allowed them to happen. Do I want to be part of an unstable workplace where people like Lou can thrive? So if I can see that people are allowed to be awful in the industry I want to get into, why do I want it?
The power of chasing passions, not success
When Lou tells TV producer Nina (Rene Russo) “why you pursue something” is important, he fails to acknowledge that the only reason he decided to be a stringer is because he is good at it. Nothing specific about the work itself is rewarding to him. All he cares about is that his grift is working. His obsession with productivity is rewarded in an unstable capitalist system, to the point where he believes chasing success is the only incentive needed. This is work ethic in its purest form, where hard work is the singular motivator for pushing yourself forward. Lou doesn’t love his job as I love writing, but he has more motivation than I do, and this translates into more results.
There’s a part of me, hidden deep down in the anxious recesses of my brain, that wants Lou’s success. He has what I don’t: drive, determination, and relentless confidence. But to idealize his success is to ignore Gilroy’s larger point: Lou’s success is a tainted, malformed one, not just because of his criminal methods, but because of the people who permit it.
People have opportunities to stop him and instead choose the option that financially rewards themselves. Nina never elects to not air Lou’s footage, and Rick’s reaction to Lou orchestrating a violent shoot-out is to demand more money. The TV station benefits from the fact that Lou will endlessly motivate himself to give them better results. It is in the best interests of your employer to make you think that hard work, and not financial reward, should be your motivator. When you are driven by work ethic, you should always question who benefits.
And let me be clear, writing benefits me. I’m never happier than when I’m putting pen to paper, trying to figure out how to express thoughts and feelings with words like I’m solving a puzzle. Writing makes you empathetic, piecing apart what goes on in someone’s head, what’s motivating them, what they care about. I wish I could take feedback on my writing without immediately descending into a panic of shame and self-deprecation, but working close with people in the creative industries is crucial to getting the best work out of me, as well as realizing what’s strong about my voice. As a writer, I need other people.
Lou sees his ascent to power as a solitary mission, one where everyone is trying to thwart him and his competitors need to be suppressed with violence. He’s sycophantic to people above him and abusive to those below him. He’s paranoid. He’s a monster. He’s alone.
Two things separate me and Lou. We are both hyper-aware of the presence of others, convinced they’re out to get us. But where he uses violence to assert his own dominance, I push myself down, and tell myself I don’t deserve success. Me and Lou are on different trajectories of self-worth, moving in completely opposite directions.
The other difference between us is more obvious. I spent so long panicking over Lou’s hard work and barely any time thinking about his statement to Nina, questioning “why you pursue something.” I realized it boils down to this: Does Lou’s success make him happy? No. He gains nothing from his work, and only enjoys the power his success provides, rather than the work himself.
I couldn’t imagine doing anything with my life other than writing. Success, in its purest form, is Lou’s motivator—mine is a love of my craft. When I’ve put on plays, I spend the whole show watching the audience, scrutinizing their laughs and gasps at the hard work of a group of people united in their passions. They’re some of my most treasured memories. Shouldn’t this be what I should chase? The collaborative process, with its encouraging, constructive feedback, the shared desire to see great pieces of work—it unites all creatives, and demands we don’t try it alone. Lou made the choice to do everything on his own because he knows he can never find a real connection.
My troubled relationship with Nightcrawler and its twisted protagonist taps into a collective problem much larger than the film: Why do we compare ourselves to other people, when we can learn from them? Why does their success, their happiness, define ours? Laying our efforts and successes against those around us means we depend on others to define our happiness. We will obviously never be satisfied. My anxiety is never going to try and help me.
In a recent spell of anxiety, I was complaining to a close friend about my fear that I’m lazy. I was having a crisis about my full-time job, thinking I was a bad person because I never felt motivated there. My friend attempted to sway me by talking about my recent productivity, how I’ve chased writing opportunities and committed myself to so many projects. “Well, obviously I have a good work ethic for stuff I care about!” I said. It took me a moment to realize I had just answered my own problem.
Me and Lou have one thing in common. We need to stop listening to the voices inside our heads. Instead, I’m listening to my passions.