For part 1 of this series, go to Louis Bloom and the Rise of the Hollywood Anti-Hero (part 1)
A Lapse of Morals
Despite the recent success of both House of Cards and Nightcrawler, the examples of the anti-heroes avoiding comeuppance are still few and far between. As stated in part one of this article there are still tricks that filmmakers use to avoid alienating their audience, but the exceptions far from prove the rule, and those filmmakers willing to take the risks are creating some of the most interesting releases. Is film moving further towards this acceptance of people winning, despite gaining their place through foul means? And if so, what does this say about the lapse of traditional morals held for years at the heart of society? Are charm, guile and good looks more important to us now than traditional values such as honesty and integrity?
Back to Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal). He is not particularly charming, nor that good looking (Gyllenhaal lost 30 lbs for the role, and looks a little like Skeletor from He-Man), and is quite clearly a sociopath who explains that he doesn’t like people. So how the hell do we let him get away with it? It is true that the moral code may have slipped in the seventy years between the 1932 version of Scarface and The Wolf of Wall Street? Furthermore, how much of that is to do with the discerning audience member searching harder for more complex and interesting characters, rather than the typical traits they have seen so many times before? For every Nightcrawler there is a Captain America: The First Avenger, where the all-American hero conquers the enemies of the state whilst remaining true to a traditional moral code. Thanks to pretty young actors, the quality of CGI and the unadulterated and very really fear of terrorism, super-hero movies have never been more popular, and we are far from the end of Hollywood’s super-saturation of the market place. So, perhaps Louis Bloom and his contemporaries act as some kind of thinking man’s antidote to them.
Before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, our enemy was an obvious one. Throughout the many wars the world had experienced over the years, culminating with the First and Second World Wars, we knew who our opponents were and could look them in the eye as we fought them on a plain and open battle field, however unfairly matched the two sides could often be. The Cold War moved the battle off the streets and into the shadowy halls of espionage, and an age of anxiety was created. But at least we still knew who the enemy was. Then the end of Sovietism brought with it a sense of unmatched superiority to the west that manifested itself most acutely in cultural imperialism. No longer did rows of troops march across a country’s borders to claim control, rather, they sent their movies, TV shows, records, video tapes, books, magazines and clothes on ahead of them with the intention of subtly taking over without the country realising they had ever been conquered.
On September 11, 2001, the world changed forever, and a new age of anxiety began in the West. Just as the escapism of the Hollywood musical thrived in a world that needed cheering up during the Great Depression of the thirties, so has the super-hero risen from his position of relative obscurity in the nineties and early noughties to save the world after 9/11. But this time we no longer know who the enemy is, for they are among us. The enemy is within. Those that enacted the 7/7 London bombings were British-born nationals, many of the 9/11 activists studied and trained in the US, and this new form of terror brings with it a loss of understanding of exactly who we are, or who we can trust. Film once again reflects this. Thor’s greatest enemy is his half-brother Loki; Iron Man is betrayed by his Godfather, Obadiah Stane; and even Captain American himself is double-crossed by his former best friend in his second solo outing. We can no longer even trust those nearest to us.
The war on terror has no corners. It is not being fought in a far distant land, it is outside our very windows and in our homes, from within our own carefully constructed society, and as such has never been more prevalent or terrifying. This explains the rise of the superhero movie in the last ten years, just in the same way it explains the prevalence of the musical and the light-hearted comedy during the war years. However, another noted truth was the rise of Film Noir during and immediately after the war. For every element of escapism that appears in trends of film popularity, so there is a counterpoint rise as the dominant social fears are confronted by bringing them to the forefront. In the 1940s, The Big Sleep dealt with themes of post-war male emasculation, and Mildred Pierce with the rejection and manipulation the younger generation visit on their parents. In other words, people need to feel that their government is looking after them whilst they confront the terrors pervading the contemporary world.
A Brave New World
Louis Bloom lives his existence on other tracks to the rest of the world. We never uncover his backstory, but there are hints of an atypical childhood with no formal education. He learns everything he knows through the internet and this leaves him disjointed as to what we deem ‘normal society’. Spouting rhetoric garnered from an online tutorial, he talks incessantly of his key qualities as if he’s at a Reed Recruitment job interview, but to a late night rubbish yard merchant he has just sold stolen copper wire, too.
His lack of social skills but thirst to succeed remind us how easy it is for one to lose themselves in an online world where – ironically enough – as human communication becomes easier, the more distanced we actually become from each other. He has no tact, and is perfectly content to blackmail Rene Russo’s TV news producer Nina Romina not just for sex, but a full-on relationship, and thus highlight his total lack of understanding of the human emotional condition.
Therefore, perhaps his success and lack of comeuppance comes not as an example for what one can achieve by stamping on those around them, but rather as a warning to the audience on the way that the world is headed. Our greatest fear is no longer the opponent stood across the battlefield from us, but is us. We are terrified of what we have become and where we are going. If Hannibal Lecter represents our fear of the depths of depravity that those who are charming, rich and intelligent can stoop to, then Frank Underwood represents exactly how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Democracy is dead, or is at least a crumbling façade that those in the know hide behind. Louis Bloom represents something much darker: the absolute annihilation of the human spirit. If people like him can succeed in life – those with no moral judgement, empathy or compassion – then what hope is there for those that will only ever succeed without trampling all over their contemporaries?
For part 3 of this series, go to Louis Bloom and the Rise of the Hollywood Anti-hero (part 3)