Lose Yourself in the Beautiful Darkness of NIGHTMARE ALLEY

Is he a man… or is he a beast?

The buzz surrounding Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley has been hard to ignore. Fans of the director, source material and genre have been watching somewhat closely, clocking every notable step along the way. There was Leonard Dicaprio’s initial interest in the project which never came to be. The casting of Bradley Cooper in the lead role and the impressive group of actors who enlisted to accompany him. Nightmare Alley was one of the first major productions to shut down when the gravity of the pandemic sunk in and had to quickly rebound once it was safe to do so in order to ensure the director’s vision would not be tossed into jeopardy. On top of all of that were the big shoes the director looked to fill with this slightly off-center passion project. Adapted from a daring novel and made into a likewise daring 1947 film noir whose acclaim seemed to skyrocket thanks to Criterion’s release this past summer, the task of successfully bringing a new interpretation of Nightmare Alley to the screen was far from an easy one. Watching the finished version in all its beautifully tragic glory however, it seems almost effortless.

In Nightmare Alley, a drifter named Stan (Bradley Cooper) accepts a job as a carny in a small-town carnival where he meets, among others, a phony psychic named Zeena (Toni Collette), her retired mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn) and a beautiful performer named Molly (Rooney Mara). Stan finds himself fascinated with Pete’s old mentalist act and quickly learns it himself. Convinced he can revive the act on his own and take it big, Stan and Molly head to the big city where their performances brings them a certain amount of wealth and fame. It also brings Stan to the attention of Lilith (Cate Blanchett), a beautiful psychologist with her own hidden agenda.

Unquestionably a cinematic master of visual flair, del Toro has never made a film that wasn’t a feast for the eyes, particularly in a darkened movie theater. This is of course was never more than true with Nightmare Alley, which has such heightened stylization at every turn, it’s impossible not to get lost in the richness of the world he’s brought to such stunning life. Even the carnival landscape, as hopeless and soulless as it is, can’t help but retain a kind of morbid wonder and charm about it. By contrast, the world Stan and Molly end up escaping to is full of an intoxicating danger lurking within its sleek, sophisticated style. Both worlds are so amplified in terms of visuals, they could only every really exist in a kind of fever dream or even, dare I say, a nightmare. It’s to del Toro’s credit that as surreal as the entire movie feels, he never strays from the real world. Nightmare Alley stays true to its noir ancestry by showing the world of WWII America lurking beneath the surface. Audiences have spent so many years watching the director delight in tales of fantasy and horror. Here, del Toro is in the world of noir where he is playing with real people and real darkness. The Oscar-winning filmmaker is not only up to the challenge, but his interpretation of that world and his view of how the men and women within it operate bring to the forefront the many elements that continue to make film noir such a compulsively watchable form of storytelling.

One of the chief concerns for anyone familiar with either the novel or the original film version was whether or not the story’s themes and motifs would remain in tact. There was some wondering if del Toro might perhaps be too taken by an alliance to his visual sensibilities that he would forget about what was at the heart of the story he was telling. Any such concerns prove unfounded however as Nightmare Alley is in keeping with the very themes which made the story so captivating in the first place.

At the center of this noir tale of crime and passion are elements of faith and belief. Stan’s act depends on both and the movie makes clear just how powerful the two are. For Stan, faith and belief are his bread and butter. He depends on those elements to work their own magic in his audience’s/victim’s minds so that they may carry him all the way to the kind of fame and glory his damaged past never could have afforded him. As for his unsuspecting marks, well, Nightmare Alley has no trouble showing the kind of obsessive danger that can come with sheer blind faith and how it can consume a person to the very end. As Stan’s act grows, so does the idea of the confidence game as a craft. Of course, such acts have always required a kind of skill, but this movie shows just how much of a person’s instincts, prejudices and own past are necessary to uncover the most seemingly inane and intricate details of the man or woman in front of them.

Even though this is ostensibly Cooper’s film, Nightmare Alley also doubles as one of the most impressive ensemble pieces of the year. Everyone from Blanchett to Mara (who fits so perfectly into del Toro’s world), to Collette makes the movie as involving as it is in their own ways. Whether it’s Willem Dafoe’s carnival owner or Richard Jenkins’ haunted millionaire, there isn’t an actor who isn’t giving everything they can for their role. Even the great Mary Steenburgen leaves such a lasting impression in just two brief, but vital, scenes. But it’s Cooper at the top of the cast roster and for good reason. The actor is never anything but compelling as he charts Stan’s journey, including his dark past and hidden painful secrets for what may well be the most transformative performance of his career to date.

I can’t remember who said it or where I heard it, but recently someone commented that although they loved del Toro’s work and were looking forward to the film, Nightmare Alley was not going to make any money. After seeing it myself, I have to confess that I’m not sure how much of a moneymaker a movie like this would be or how much of an appetite there is for it among the current moviegoing public. Not only is the movie the antithesis of the typical kind of end of year prestige film thanks to its dark subject matter, but it’s also the most grandiose version ever made of this kind of noir. Nightmare Alley also straddles the line between art house and big budget while slightly favoring its heavy dialog-driven scenes above it’s thrilling twists and turns. It’s the kind of film that relies on star power and lavish thrills as much as it does in the belief that 2021 audiences can embrace an EXTREMELY gray protagonist and happily delve into a very specific form of darkness where a man is seen trying to outrun his inevitable fate for two and a half hours. While its box-office potential is questionable, nothing can convince me that there isn’t room for such a dazzling exploration into the hopelessly tainted soul.

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