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Based on the 1946 novel by William Gresham, Nightmare Alley follows a hapless but charismatic hustler who stumbles upon a mysterious carnival in the 1930s and is drawn to its fascinating cast of characters. In pursuit of success and fame he becomes a mentalist, but never stops wanting more, eventually risking it all on a dangerous scheme.
A stacked deck of Oscar-winning names including director/writer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water), Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born), Cate Blanchett (Thor: Ragnarok, Mrs America), Rooney Mara (Carol), Willem Dafoe (Spiderman: Far From Home), Toni Collette (Unbelievable), Ron Perlman (Don’t Look Up), and Richard Jenkins (The Humans).
Guillermo del Toro’s films are always beautifully shot and visually stunning. He pays attention to every detail, so the audience fully understands the tone of the story and the environment in which it takes place. Nightmare Alley continues this style and uses the camera as a tool to create mythicism in the real world. Add the incredible performances by a star-studded cast, and it is understandable why critics have been enthralled with his latest.
Bradley Cooper shows great range as the lead, Stanton Carlisle. Starting off as the strong and silent type, he evolves into a more charming and overly confident character. He executes everything he learns about the art of mentalism, even at the expense of his mentor. He’s so ambitious he’s willing to do anything to gain wealth (including selling his soul).
Like Stanton, every character in the film is motivated by selfish gain, from the deceptive ring leader Clem, played by Willem Dafoe, to the beautiful clairvoyant Zeena, played by Toni Collette. This world makes Stanton look less of a villain and more of an opportunist, up until he actually learns the art of mentalism. We see a lot of moral symbolism, highlighted when Stanton enters the House of Damnation while searching for the runaway “geek” at the start of the film. The house entrance has the words “Greed,” “Wrath,” “Lust,” “Pride,” and “Envy” written on the walls—five of the Seven Deadly Sins and also Stanton’s vices. After entering the house, he faces a mirror with the words “Take a look at yourself, sinner” written above it, a warning to the character to beware of his actions and the consequences that lie ahead.
In the role of Molly, Rooney Mara provides a warm presence on screen from her first appearance until the very last act. She wears red, a stark contrast in a noir world. It’s no surprise then that all of the characters gravitate towards her. Like the color she wears, she represents life, health, and love … something Stanton has difficulty grasping given his troubled past. Molly attempts to convince Stanton to come clean and admit he’s not truly a medium, lest there be dangerous consequences. But he refuses.
During several scenes featuring the mysterious psychologist, Lilith (Cate Blanchett), del Toro creates a hypnotic tone, highlighting her eyes in a deep shadow when she’s talking to Stanton. It’s as if Stanton understands she is dangerous, but he’s also intrigued after their first interaction and eventually starts an affair with her. Yet during a show for wealthy patrons, their relationship takes a turn.
Although Dafoe’s screen time is short, his portrayal of the manipulative Clem is unforgettable. He has many stories that leave one unsure if they are true or really just part of a scheme to make a quick buck or get cheap labor out of the other characters. The marks he interacts with are doubtful, but fall for his tricks most of the time anyway.
Stanton’s ambition turns into obsession and, as a result, he goes from not drinking at all to drinking regularly, slowly turning into the person he despises the most: a manipulative lush like his father. He believes his own lies so much that he even beats a lie detector test. Stanton discovers an opportunity to build more wealth and the risk becomes greater as he cons the wealthy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), who yearns to connect with his deceased lover. Will Stanton overcome his obsession or will his past get the best of him?
Nightmare Alley is an intriguing noir film with rich performances and a fantastic exploration of a mystic world, explored through the vibrant, stylized lens that is Guillermo del Toro’s signature. As for it’s 2022 Oscar chances, Variety’s Clayton Davis says it’s “too luscious for Oscars to ignore.”
Fellow fans of Guillermo del Toro and the noir film style will love this film. I know I did.
This is actually the second film adaptation of Gresham’s Nightmare Alley. The first, directed by Edmund Goulding, came out in 1947, just a year after the book was originally published.