Nightmare Alley evokes a disturbing psychological look into oneself’s morality and humanity from a (not so) humble beginning to a bitter disappointing acceptable end. From extreme highs to the deepest of lows and everything in between, each character in Guillermo del Toro’s first film since his Academy Award winning The Shape of Water, have their own demons that don’t quite want to say hidden for too long, turning them into what the world sees as trickery and deception and most importantly what they hate above all else.
I wasn’t keeping an exact count but give or take 10 minutes is when the first words are uttered by the main character Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). In that time, Stan escapes from his past demons that stay with him deep in his subconscious well after becoming a successful mentalist turned con-man. Something about Cooper’s portrayal of Stan causes trepidation in trusting him completely. The film opens to Stan dragging a corpse into a makeshift grave in the center of a house and then lighting everything on fire. Escaping his past proves difficult in Stan’s life, every past horror he encountered comes back full circle to haunt him until he becomes what he fears.
Guillermo del Toro’s version is my first experience with the material – the novel of the same name written by William Lindsay Gresham and the 1947 film adaptation. Not having the prior knowledge won’t hurt in following the narrative as de Toro adapted the novel rather than remaking the 1947 film. The result is a 2-and-a-half-hour epic-length thriller that suggests a methodical approach with its built up expository first half but can’t keep up with how ambitious its characters are.
Stan takes a job as a carny with a traveling carnival first assisting Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe) in disposing a “geek” (a disheveled, alcohol induced man turned into a starved lunatic). From there Stan works with a clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn) soaking up all the necessary knowledge to swindle and con unsuspecting people for money. Stan plans to leave the Carny life running away with Molly (Rooney Mara) to start their own show. That plan of running away together becomes a reality when Stan gives Pete a bottle of wood alcohol, thus killing him.
If that sounds like a mouthful of a plot already, you’re not wrong, that’s only the half of it. Nightmare Alley is a long film, longer than it needs to be and feels even longer when in the weeds of the story. In the exposition, groundwork, ideas, and methodologies are laid out that at the time seem innocent enough but end up haunting the characters in question in the long run. None of the characters in de Toro’s version are inherently good people (except for Molly perhaps) but even she willingly takes part in Stan’s con. Stan is not a person to admire – he’s as mysterious as his illusions, ruthless, cunning, intelligent and money hungry. Point is, you don’t want to be him, and Cooper plays the role perfectly casting a bigger shadow than the script casts. Everything Stan is, good or bad will ultimately seal his downfall in the second half of the film. You must endure the first half to get there.
Technically, Nightmare Alley is a masterpiece of filmmaking. The acute attention to detail, the gothic noir aesthetic and the atmosphere created by de Toro is magnificent. Every frame is full of detail that transports the viewer back in time to a period that shows to extreme sides of a coin. On one hand is the life of a carnival troop – living in the elements and filth, dealing with unwanted attention from the police to a more upper-class lifestyle that only money can buy. The acclaimed director’s stylistic approach to filmmaking is all over Nightmare Alley. Though illusion heavy, the script written by de Toro and Kim Morgan is cut and dry.
Thematically, the film revolves around choice and morality. Each choice Stan makes splinters his soul into bigger pieces than the choice before it. Whether he willingly poisoned Pete or not, cheating on Molly with Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), taking advantage of Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) and Miss Kimball (Mary Steenburgen) over their individual grief – Stan is the villain to himself rather than a hero which I how he originally saw himself. Taking a quote from The Dark Knight – “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. By the end, homeless, starving, drunk Stan becomes the very thing Carny bosses look for in a geek. He was born to play that role – laughing manically in acceptance of his fate
I’m conflicted with Nightmare Alley and whether I believe it’s a top film of the year. A flawed masterpiece, certainly, brilliant in its cinematography from Dan Laustsen, music by Nathan Johnson and de Toro’s mastery in directing but the slow methodical pace and overly long run time cripple the film. It is a must watch for the strong ensemble cast that all give outstanding performances and a lavishly dark and dreadful aesthetic. Frequent collaborations only help Nightmare Alleys case with del Toro getting the best out of his talent both in front and behind the camera.
Written By: Guillermo del Toro & Kim Morgan
Directed By: Guillermo del Toro
Music By: Nathan Johnson
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%
My Score: 3.5 out of 5
Based On: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham