Review: Nightmare Alley
Regardless of its superficial divergences from del Toro’s typical formula, Matthew Bowden finds the director’s gothic stylings in full swing in his recent neo-noirish effort.
Considering Guillermo del Toro’s penchant for gothic strangeness and period-piece fantasy, it seems slightly out of left-field that his follow-up to 2017 Best Picture winner The Shape of Water is a 1940s neo-noir thriller centred around the mania of carnivals.
Fortunately, though not exactly surprisingly, Nightmare Alley (2021) is much too good to be confined by genre limitations. It’s a grippingly cutthroat portrait of how far someone will go in refashioning themselves to fulfil their own, personal American Dream – and the extent to which this individualism is fundamentally self-destructive.
The film opens with Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man evidently attempting to escape his past, discovering an opportunity to work as a carny worker. Little by little, he manages to infiltrate this deceptive industry and gain an understanding of its internal mechanisms, such as the basics of mentalism and the disturbingly inhuman way a carnival acquires its ‘geek’.
Eventually, Stan finds himself in a position, alongside his new love Molly (Rooney Mara), to leave small-town America behind and ‘make a dent’ in the big city, blissfully unaware of the pitfalls and temptations that are about to be laid in his path.
Cooper is tremendous in the lead role and masters the essential balance between Stan’s boyish, charismatic nature against his ruthless ambition
One consistently engrossing feature of del Toro’s filmmaking has always been his skills as a worldbuilder and his affinity for weird and wonderful iconography. Nightmare Alley is no different, with the visual spectacle of the carnival and its frenzied atmosphere being what primarily guides us through the opening few scenes – somewhat unexpectedly, Stan doesn’t actually have any dialogue until about ten minutes in.
As things develop, though, the façade of this dazzling artificiality is worn down and the narrative’s dark underbelly begins to emerge. Pete (David Straitharn), a veteran con-merchant Stan encounters, repeatedly warns him not to engage in ‘spook shows’ with potential clientele. Yet, when Stan gets the opportunity to enter the lucrative world of New York high-society mentalism through the austere Doctor Ritter (Cate Blanchett), he doesn’t think twice about sacrificing his morality to make it happen.
Cooper is tremendous in the lead role and masters the essential balancing act of maintaining Stan’s boyish, charismatic nature against his ruthless ambition. His chemistry with Blanchett, too, transcends the superficial practicality of their relationship and adds a new dimension to the film; an excellent scene immediately jumps to mind in which Ritter strips him of his showman front and arouses his deep-seated vulnerabilities, of which we will discover there are many.
Really, Pete’s warning to Stan intimates something darkly ironic about how figures such as these have a kind of ethics boundary only when it comes to the extent of their deception. In this way it seems that, as Stan gets further entangled in his sordid plot, the world of mentalism and deception ultimately becomes one of self-deception – a sentiment that is only reinforced by what is a jaw-droppingly poignant ending. Del Toro has done it again.