Nightmare Alley

December 17th, 2021




What often wins me over with a movie such as Nightmare Alley is the way director Guillermo del Toro hooks me into his plots. What could never be claimed about The Shape of Water director is that he does not care. He lives, eats, breathes, obsesses over the art of cinema. He’s undoubtedly a true artist as well, often digging into his mind that allows him to create such haunting images, and letting his thoughts pour onto the screen. Nightmare Alley– del Toro’s remake of the 1947 film with Tyrone Power- is quite possibly his least haunting story being told, and yet the more it moves on, the deeper we dig into the plot, the more the monsters begin to crawl out. This version of Nightmare Alley is about the darkness of men and the ugliness that lies beneath the surface of an entertainer. The entire production is a dreamlike display of madness and another film for this legendary director that will earn greater respect as time goes on.

The way to describe the plot of Nightmare Alley is that it is a long arching and demented rainbow of a story. It starts in a farmhouse, where we meet Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who is busy burying a body under this home, and then proceeds to light the house ablaze. He walks to a bus stop, taking the ride as far as he can go, and ending up at the traveling carnival of Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe). The show is filled with oddities such as the bearded lady, the world’s strongest man, and a person pawned off as a wild beast that Clem calls the Geek. Stanton helps around the grounds, befriends the fortune teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn). He learns the tricks of the trade, learning how to read people, or grift them to believe he can read minds, sense spirits, or see much more. He does it with hopes to impress Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), biding his time, learning how to be the best, and eventually taking his own grift on the road with Molly. The dream is to get away, start anew, but as his success grows, so too does the risk he runs tricking the world that he’s more than a charlatan.

What I truly loved about Nightmare Alley is that this is a full three-act film. The carnival is the start up, where the new man seems innocent enough, learning from those stuck, but just happy to be a part of the community. The second act sees Stanton leave the carnival world behind, becoming a successful magician that plays packed houses at a luxurious dining show. It’s at this moment where Molly and Stanton are fully in love, enjoying massive success, and always reminding one another to never take the con too far. But of course, that’s not how things are going to stay, where the middle to third act becomes when greed bubbles up. Stanton meets the seductive Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), sparking a romance on the side, and a psychiatrist willing to help give dark details about her patience to help him on the con. When wealthy and crooked businessman Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) calls, wanting to connect with his dead lover, the con becomes too deep, a terror that Stanton can’t seem to find his way out of.

From a technical standpoint, Nightmare Alley is absolutely at the top. The set designs, from mad fun houses, to back corner streets, and fascinatingly set doctors offices, Nightmare Alley hits every excellent mark. The screenplay, written by del Toro and Kim Morgan may take time to develop, but the majority of it is worth the wait by the end. Each character is a mystery, wildly deceptive, taking a drag off a cigarette, letting the smoke waft in the air, lingering over the deceptive eyes of Blanchett and company. The cinematography pairs perfectly with The Shape of Water, mixing in darker tones of green, yellow, and red, installing the noir styles into the Guillermo del Toro look. If the pace of the narrative is not revving the engine for you, there’s plenty of other things for your eyeballs to be entertained with in Nightmare Alley.

This is ultimately just another successful installment into the master works of Guillermo del Toro. He’s an auteur, never shifting in his style, but molding this remake into his own image. I do not doubt that the original Nightmare Alley is a better version- although I still have not seen it- but this version works as it’s own interpretation. It is a mixture of human complexity we see in Crimson Peak, where relationships become fractured, dark secrets eventually arise; And it also has the incredibly compelling final act that had me leaning forward with every turn. No matter what, Guillermo del Toro knows exactly how to turn the screws, direct our attention, and hit us with the big reveal. He’s a movie magician and Nightmare Alley is just another great show at his carnival.



Written by: Leo Brady

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