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Nightmare Alley

Starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, this mesmerisingly dark carnival noir is one of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's very best features.
By Sarah Ward
January 20, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
January 20, 2022
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Don't mistake the blaze that starts Nightmare Alley for warmth; in his 11th film, Guillermo del Toro gets chillier than he ever has. A lover of gothic tales told with empathy and curiosity, the Mexican filmmaker has always understood that escapism and agony go hand in hand — in life, and in his fantastical movies — and here, in a carnival noir that springs from William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel and previously reached cinemas in 1947, he runs headfirst into cold, unrelenting darkness. As The Shape of Water movingly demonstrated to Best Picture and Best Director Oscar wins, no one seeks emotional and mental refuge purely for the sake it. They flee from something, and del Toro's life's work has spotted that distress clearly from his first dalliance with the undead in his 1993 debut Cronos. The Divinyls were right: there is indeed a fine line between pleasure and pain, which del Toro keeps surveying; however, Nightmare Alley tells of trying to snatch glimpses of empty happiness amid rampant desolation.

That burning house, once home to the skulking Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, Licorice Pizza), is surrounded by America's stark midwestern landscape circa 1939. Still, the terrain of its now-former occupant's insides is even grimmer, as Nightmare Alley's opening image of Stan dropping a body into a hole in the abode's floor, then striking a match, shows. From there, he descends into the carny world after hopping on a bus with only a bag and a radio, alighting at the end of the line and finding a travelling fair at this feet. Given a job by barker Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man: No Way Home), he gets by doing whatever's asked, including helping clean up after the geek act — although, even with his ambiguities evident from the outset, stomaching a cage-dwelling man biting the heads off live chickens to entertain braying crowds isn't initially easy.

While set in an already-despondent US where the Depression is only just waning, the shadows of the First World War linger and more are soon to fall via World War II, Nightmare Alley still gives Stan flickers of hope. Adapted from the novel by del Toro with feature debutant Kim Morgan, the movie doesn't ever promise light or virtue, but kindness repeatedly comes its protagonist's way in its first half. In fortune-teller Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette, Dream Horse) and her oft-sauced husband and assistant Pete (David Strathairn, Nomadland), Stan gains friends and mentors. He takes to mentalism like he was born to it, and his gift for manipulating audiences — and his eagerness to keep pushing the spiritualism further — is firmly a sign. Soon, it's 1941 and he's rebadged himself as 'The Great Stanton' in city clubs, claiming to speak to the dead in the pursuit of bigger paydays, with fellow ex-carny Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara, Mary Magdalene) as his romantic and professional partner beyond the dustbowl.

The tone may be blacker than del Toro's usual mode — positively pitch-black in the feature's unforgettable ending, in fact — but Stan is just doing what the director's main characters tend to: trying to find his own place as he runs from all that haunts him. "My whole life, I been lookin', lookin' for somethin' I'm good at — an' I think I found it," he says, his elation palpable. Although his first altercation with Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, Don't Look Up) starts with a public scene at one of his swanky gigs, he's equally as thrilled that his crowd-pleasing act attracts her attention, and by the psychologist's suggestion that they team up on wealthy mark Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins, Kajillionaire). But here's the thing about being a grifter, even one who was so recently a drifter: if you're fleecing someone, you're likely being fleeced back in turn.

Fox Mulder was right, too. In The X-Files, the David Duchovny-played character's main maxims contradicted each other yet also rang true, because people do want to believe even if they know they should trust no one. That iconic sci-fi series had its own ace carnival episode, and TV also went there in HBO's exceptional early-00s series Carnivàle — and while both pop to mind when watching Nightmare Alley, del Toro doesn't follow slavishly in anyone else's footsteps. As he's done with ghosts (The Devil's Backbone), superheroes (his two Hellboy films), fairytale worlds (Pan's Labyrinth), kaiju (Pacific Rim) and haunted houses (Crimson Peak), he's intensely astute at twisting familiar realms to suit his stylistic flourishes and thematic fascinations, and making it all feel brand new. Nightmare Alley doesn't lack influences, the entire history of film noir that the original flick hails from chief among them, but it's always its own towering beast.

Like getting lost in its funhouse sideshows, jewel-hued costumes and the velvety art-deco furnishings of life after the road, this endlessly mesmerising movie is always sordid yet immaculate as well, and creepy yet slinky and pulpy yet ravishing. Pondering a road to hell paved with self-serving intentions, it has a heart of darkness that courses with inky, icy blood, and it's also as alluring a film as del Toro has helmed. Yes, it's a feature that lives the idea that something that draws you in vividly and instantly might be prowled by monsters both hidden and not-so, with Nightmare Alley pumping one of its central notions through every technical touch it can. Aided by cinematographer Dan Laustsen's (Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water) gliding imagery and production designer Tamara Deverell's (the del Toro-produced vampire TV series The Strain) vibrant staging, every frame is visual perfection — not just by looking spectacular, but by so heartily embracing its settings, genre and dissection of humanity's bleakest impulses.

Cue a commanding performance by Cooper to match every move that Nightmare Alley makes; thanks to Licorice Pizza and now this, he's having a career-best moment. While never convincingly as youthful as dialogue intimates, he captures the same thing that del Toro constantly interrogates, playing a slippery and unsettling man who knows how to lure people in — it takes time for Stan to segue from barely speaking to smooth patter, but the latter more than does its job — and how to twist a knife to devastating effect. He isn't alone in his stellar portrayal, though, with Collette and Strathairn soulful and tender, Mara beaming with heart, Dafoe hardened and nightmarish, and Jenkins cuttingly crafty. An energetic yet sinister presence who couldn't be more at home in her thorny part, Blanchett could've walked right out of the 30s and 40s herself, too, although that's oh-so-much about del Toro's latest masterpiece all over.

Top image: Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021, 20th Century Studios, all rights reserved.

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