Throughout his career as a filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro has shown us the darkest parts of humanity. Generally he uses the lens of the outsiders, the unwanted children and the perceived monsters. In all of the director’s best films, he mixes fantastical elements with the harsh, often violent, reality of the world. In his latest, Nightmare Alley, it’s all harsh reality. The only fantastical elements are the outright fraudulent, the work of hucksters and charlatans. As a result, it’s also the bleakest look at humanity he’s ever put to screen.
Del Toro and Kim Hunter adapted William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name. The book had already been adapted to the screen in a 1947 film noir at Fox. The movie, which was to be swashbuckling hero actor Tyrone Power’s shift to “serious” films, was too bleak even for a noir. Its setting of sideshows, carnivals, mentalist performances, and faux spiritual readings is not the typical backdrop for such a picture. But it seems, in 2021, the perfect vehicle for del Toro. He has, time and again, shown the utmost love for such things.
The movie follows a drifter named Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) who happens upon a traveling sideshow. He falls into a job, first as grunt labor and then as a barker for Madam Zeena (Toni Collette) and her phony mentalism act. The head of the sideshow, Clem (Willem Dafoe), takes a shine to Stan. He shows him all of the seedier parts of the business. That includes medical oddities and the Geek, a strictly illegal act where a bestial man bites the head off a live chicken. Meanwhile, Zeena’s drunkard husband Pete (David Strathairn) teaches Stan the ways of mentalism. Stan’s natural showmanship takes over. Eventually he and another carny named Molly (Rooney Mara) branch out on their own using Pete’s dangerous mentalism scheme.
When they reach the big city, Stan thinks he can land the bigger fish in the form of powerful judges and businessmen. Though specifically forbidden from doing “spook shows” where he pretends to communicate with the dead, Stan thinks he can make the big money making rich people believe he can speak to their dead loved ones. It’s a particularly risky move. He has to enlist the aid of psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who has her own motives. Richard Jenkins plays a particularly powerful man Stan would be very foolish to try to swindle.
First and foremost it should be said that this version of Nightmare Alley is not as good, or as upsetting, as the ’47 original. Sure it can show more blood and more explicitly convey themes the earlier film simply couldn’t. But what it lacks is the urgency, the spark of unbridled insanity from characters like Stan and Lilith that made the original so disturbing. While the story, like all good noirs, is about doom from beginning to end, we never get the sense in this version that Stan might have something else up his sleeve that could get him out of the scrapes.
That said, it’s clear what del Toro cares most about. The best scenes here are the early ones with Stan ingratiating himself with the sideshow folks, learning about that very specific world of making yokels believe they’ve gotten their money’s worth. There is something horrific and yet, like all the best del Toro movies, strangely beautiful about the carny life. This stands in contrast to the gorgeously recreated Art Deco offices and hotels that permeate the second half. They seem foreboding, like a world Stan ought to realize he doesn’t belong in.
I think Nightmare Alley is perhaps del Toro’s most handsome production. Everything about the visual presentation is outstanding. Dan Laustsen, who also shot Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water, does a masterful job of weaving the camera around the settings, never straying far from Stan himself. Nathan Johnson’s score also lends itself to the heavy feeling of longing and dread that permeates the entire story.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the cast. The performances are quite good, and particular plaudits must go to Cooper who is in, I think, every single scene in the movie. There is no question that Stan Carlisle is the tragic hero(?) of the movie. Cooper displays the kind of swagger necessary for someone who believes himself to be the smartest guy in the room. Blanchett is, well, she’s Cate Blanchett and therefore amazing, though I do feel like she’s playing a femme fatale in a 1940s movie while everyone else is playing in a movie set in the 1940s. Not a complaint, given the character, but a bit jarring.
What stands out most is that, unlike the earlier del Toro movies, there isn’t anything like the kind of magic or whimsy that he tends to inject. There is no fantasy here, aside from the delusions of grandeur in Stan’s own mind. His overt fantasies have monsters—ghosts, fairies, an ancient fish-man-god—but always we learn that humans are the real monsters. Here it’s all humans, so they’re all the real monsters. It’s simply about the degree to which they’re monstrous. What’s grotesque is how people treat each other, and the violence that can erupt when others see them for what they truly are.
Nightmare Alley is a fascinating, troubling movie that mostly succeeds and offers us a look at a world obsessed with horrors of the real life variety.
3.5 out of 5