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Nightmare Alley (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver, Mark Povinelli, Romina Power, Paul Anderson, David Hewlett, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Dian Bachar, Troy James, Drew Nelson and Linden Porco.

Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Distributed by Searchlight Pictures. 150 minutes. Rated R.

The world of Guillermo del Toro must be a strange place to live in. It is a world of haunted houses, freak shows, sea creatures, labyrinths, carnival folk, creatures of the night and childhood nightmares.

Nightmare Alley is del Toro’s first film since his surprise Best Picture winner The Shape of Water, five years ago. It is also arguably his darkest, most cynical film yet. Which is not to say that it comes completely from his imagination. Nightmare Alley is based on a cult-favorite 1946 noir pulp novel by William Lindsay Gresham, which was also made into a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power (which was a really dark piece of work to come out of the old studio system).

It makes for an interesting follow-up to The Shape of Water. It is as fantastical as that film was and yet at the same time sharing none of that film’s warmth and humanity. Nightmare Alley is a dirty film, populated by despicable people – con men, murderers, circus freaks, adulterers, carnies, alcoholics, mobsters, mentalists, hobos, geeks and the like. Even the few “good” characters are grifters and users and fully complicit in all the darkness going on around them.

But that’s okay, it’s a scary world full of bad people. Nightmare Alley – the book, the original film, and now this remake – has always been a cautionary tale about man’s inhumanity to man, the seduction of greed and the wages of sin.

Sadly, although it is a period piece taking place during the Great Depression, it feels strangely current in this crazy world we are living in. (del Toro often uses the past to comment on the present day). I wish I could say that I didn’t recognize the world of Nightmare Alley, but I most certainly did.

In the old carnivals like the ones that at least half of this film takes place in, they used to have signs signifying that an attraction was particularly disturbing which read: “This is a dark ride.” Well, Nightmare Alley is a very dark ride, a pitch-black ride. There is little in the way of learning, or growing, or contrition.

This is a film populated by hustlers – on the high and low levels of the social scale – doing horrible things and eventually paying for their sins. It is populated with “curiosities” – another term which was favored by those carnival folk – like dog-faced boys, deformed fetuses and geeks. There is always a geek, as we are informed early.

Our main character is a handsome young man named Stan (Bradley Cooper). Nightmare Alley, though it has a lot of indelible characters, is mostly about his meteoric rise and his staggering fall. We are introduced to him as he has apparently just killed his father (or at least allowed him to die) and set his Midwest farmhouse ablaze. He walks into town where a travelling carnival is passing through. He is fascinated by the seedy ambiance of the place (as well as a pretty carny girl named Molly played by Rooney Mara) and takes a job as a gopher for the carnival.

His charm, handsomeness and his gift for gab quickly gains him notice. He learns the tricks of a mentalist – ways to scam people to believe that he can read their minds and tell the future using simple tricks and props.

Eventually, he becomes good enough to put the carnival life behind him, taking Molly and setting up an act which becomes a local sensation. Suddenly they have a regular gig in a swank room hustling the local rubes. It all starts to fall apart when a femme fatale – a psychologist named Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) – enters his life.

Dr. Ritter recognizes Stan for what he is – a con man – but instead of turning him in to her rich clients, she helps him work out bigger, more dangerous scams. Stan loses himself with the using doctor, going against all of his better judgment for the possibility of bigger paydays. As he soon learns, “Sometimes you don’t know where the line is until you have crossed it.” All of this leads him towards a possible spectacular downfall.

Obviously, I will not say what happens. The power of Nightmare Alley is seeing what happens for yourself. However, Nightmare Alley does not pull its punches. It’s hard to say that seeing such a relentlessly bleak film is an enjoyable event, but it is certainly a fascinating and eye-opening experience.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: December 16, 2021.


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