The stupidest cliche in horror is “humans are the real monsters.” Because, while humans can be venal, selfish, and cruel, the point of comparison here is actual fucking monsters, and as terrible as humans as a whole can be, they’re not brain-sucking ghouls. But we seem to like this idea, judging by how often it comes up, probably because we’re so narcissistic and self-loathing we can’t really imagine anything worse than ourselves. However, if we stretch our genre boundaries a little, and completely remove supernatural hoo-har from the picture, the idea does take on some added power.
We meet Lou Bloom as he’s stealing a chain-link fence to sell as scrap-metal, beating up a security guard and taking his watch in the process. After failing to get a good deal, and being turned down for a job on the reasonable grounds that even a man who buys stolen goods isn’t going to hire a thief, Lou stumbles upon a car crash, accompanied by multiple police cars, and a freelance “news camera crew” run by Joe Loder, and a new career path presents itself to Lou. Selling some more stolen goods nets Lou a small camcorder and a police scanner, and his utterly callous indifference to human suffering gets him some excellent close-up shots of a carjacking victim, footage he sells to “vampire shift” tv news producer Nina Romina. With a little cash, Lou is able to “hire” an intern, Rick, and steadily improve his equipment by going for footage with greater and greater shock value, even going so far as to break into crime scenes and “restage” accidents for more dramatic impact. And when Lou experiences a setback, such as Joe Loder’s crew beating him to a plane crash, some creative tampering with Lou’s van gets him some prime footage of Joe’s own death. Things begin to spiral when Lou comes upon an active crime scene, an apparent home invasion in a wealthy neighborhood. He breaks into the home, and cuts out the footage of the perpetrators before selling it. He uses the footage to track them down and arrange for the police to arrest them in a public place, leading to a shoot out and the deaths of several people, including Rick, who had been asking for more money after realizing what Lou was up to. And, in the end, Lou gets his happy ending, becoming a successful and respected entrepreneur.
Lou is a singularly monstrous figure. There’s no comforting distancing in the film, we as the audience are up close and personal with a sociopath the entire time. There are no attempts made to soften Lou or make him sympathetic. He is essentially a parasite, living and profiting off human pain and misery, and smiling at you as he beats you for a cheap watch. But, as monstrous as Lou is, he exists within a system that is designed to create people like him. Everyone Lou encounters, save possibly Rick, is somehow living off others, from the metal shop owner who knowingly buys stolen goods, to Joe who inspires him, to Nina whose livelihood depends on exploiting the public’s appetite for pain and violence, no one is morally clean. Lou is just better at it than everyone else, probably because, as he admits, he just simply doesn’t like or care about other people at all. It’s hard to fairly evaluate the truthfulness of that statement, because everything that comes out of Lou’s mouth is a rapid string of pattering bullshit (the casualness with which Lou tosses off Malcolm Gladwell-esque aphorisms is his most unsettling verbal tic), but it’s probably the closest time he comes to saying what he’s actually thinking. It’s also the moment when he very clearly decides that it’s time for Rick to die in the line of duty.
Lou is monstrous because he’s recognizable, and he’s the product of a very human system. So, yes, humans can be the real monsters, but only when we bear in mind that, after all, it’s only us out here.