Because I have an infant and rarely see movies in the theater anymore, I didn’t see Nightcrawler until a few months after it was released on Netflix. In case you haven’t seen it, the film follows the highly-motivated, thirty-something Louis Bloom as he tries to make a career for himself as a videographer who sells gritty footage to news stations. It’s beautifully shot, well-acted, and gripping as hell. Seriously, I really enjoyed it. I swear. But something about it bothered me and continued to nag at my arguably overly-sensitive sensibilities for days.
While watching Nightcrawler, I turned to my husband more than once to ask, “Do you think he’s supposed to be on the spectrum?” I was referring to awkward anti-hero Lou, who spends most of Nightcrawler spouting off like a bad self-help guru or a handbook for corporate success. He’s also weirdly fixated on the lottery and is either oblivious to or boldly ignores a number of the secondary characters’ social cues. After combing through reviews of the film, I knew I wasn’t alone in wondering. Many reviewers had referred to Lou as “borderline autistic” or suffering from some sort of “autism-like disorder.” But my husband, who’s actually a mental health clinician, just shrugged at my question. Like most well-balanced professionals, he doesn’t bring his work home with him and, to him, Nightcrawler was just an entertaining action flick.
A little background about me is probably necessary here. When I was in my late-twenties, I spent eighteen months working at a residential program for kids (mostly teens) struggling with mental health and neurological issues. This BY NO MEANS makes me an expert on mental illness or neuroatypicals. Not even close. But it did give me the opportunity to see kids who carry some serious diagnoses as three-dimensional people, along with the chutzpah to occasionally call bullshit on Hollywood. I also participate somewhat regularly in the echo-chamber that is the Twitter YA community, which happens to be full of self- and socially-aware folks who aren’t afraid to point out when they find something problematic. As noted above, this probably makes me more sensitive than 99.9% of ALL THE PEOPLE.
My problem with Lou’s character is two-fold. First, for those who haven’t seen the movie, I need to note that Lou, who carries enough classic autism-spectrum traits to make more than a few viewers and reviewers wonder about his neuro-status, does some shockingly despicable and grisly things in Nightcrawler. To put it bluntly, he’s a class-A asshole and a truly dangerous human being. If our culture wasn’t already suffering from the effects of unfortunate stereotypes that paint those on the spectrum as misanthropic, flat-affect, genius weirdos at best (think Sheldon Cooper or Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg) and callously violent psychos at worst (let’s just call this the Adam Lanza effect), I probably wouldn’t care. But we don’t live in that stereotype-less world. If you’re going to depict a character on the spectrum or heavily hint that he’s on it, some artistic responsibility is probably in order.
There’s been much discussion on Reddit and a few other forums about whether Lou is autistic or a sociopath or both. At one point in the film, he says, “What if my problem isn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them.” In an exceptionally well-written post on Medium, Lena Potts notes that this line solved the movie’s problem for her. “Woah,” she writes. “He’s not Autistic. He’s psychotic. He’s a sociopath. I was finally able to breathe a little.”
Though I think she makes an excellent point, I can only get halfway there. Because regardless of whether it might also be possible to “diagnose” Lou with antisocial personality disorder (sociopathology is actually a pop psychology concept, not a clinical one), he still embodies enough spectrum traits to make a Google search of “Nightcrawler autism” generate almost fifty-thousand results. Fifty. Thousand. Thus, the problem of contributing to a truly unfortunate stereotype persists, especially when one considers that autistic folks are much more likely to be victimized themselves than to hurt someone else.
That said, I might be willing to let Nightcrawler slide if I thought those spectrum traits were absolutely integral to Lou’s character, which brings us to issue number two. Sadly, I think Lou is yet another example of what Potts refers to in her post as “the autism game.” Instead of coming up with unique traits to establish a character as eccentric or quirky, it seems that some filmmakers and TV writers slap a few classic spectrum traits on a character with superhuman intelligence and call it a day without ever having to confirm or deny that the character is autistic. I hesitate to name names because I indulge in plenty of content full of arguably reductive or cartoonish depictions (cough cough…The Big Bang Theory…cough cough…Bones), but I have to admit it appears that a new brand of stock character has emerged.
Part of the problem might be our culture’s newish tendency to think we can pull out our pocket DSM-V and diagnose every fictional character under the sun with something, but I still don’t think we can let Hollywood off the hook. Not everyone who’s weird or awkward is on the spectrum and, for the love of god, neuroatypicals deserve better. They deserve onscreen representation that is three-dimensional, thoroughly researched, and as complex as they are. I’m not saying they need to always be portrayed as “good” people (that would be a problem in and of itself) but they deserve to be more than ambiguously-handicapped prodigies who can’t make eye contact, awkward comedy punchlines, or cold-as-ice bogeymen. And though I think Nightcrawler represents some excellent filmmaking, it’s my opinion that writer-director Dan Gilroy could have used other devices to establish Lou as a lonely but driven individual.
Obviously, there are exceptions out there. The titular character of Adam struck me as very multi-layered, I loved the Temple Grandin biopic, and I’ve heard wonderful things about Parenthood though I, personally, haven’t seen it yet. But when I tried to come up with thoughtful depictions of neuroatypical characters in pop culture, most of the examples that came to mind weren’t onscreen, but in YA novels (again, the echo-chamber at work). The earliest example I can recall is the The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which, if you can believe it, came out over ten years ago. Some time later, I read Francisco X. Stork’s fantastic Marcelo in the Real World, which stayed with me for a long time after I finished the last page. There’s also Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly and Cynthia Lord’s Rules, which is actually MG but particularly noteworthy since its autistic character is not also a genius. For a more extensive list, check out this YA Highway post. I should also note that YA contains countless examples of quirky, eccentric and awkward outsiders who are not on the spectrum. This YA stock character if there ever was one serves as proof that spectrum traits don’t need to be used as a trendy crutch to establish a character as weird or exceptional or socially disconnected.
YA still needs more representation when it comes to disabilities, including neuroatypical characters (I’ve yet to start a project featuring a neuroatypical protag or secondary character but I’ve had it on my list of writer-goals for while). But in terms of well-constructed, complex, and in-depth depictions of neuroatypicals, YA authors appear to be kicking Hollywood’s ass. Though there’s a lot more room in a novel to develop a character than there is in a two-hour film, I don’t see why the onscreen world can’t take a few cues from the YA lit world.
End of rant. Now let’s all go enjoy some action flicks full of stock characters.