In most of Guillermo del Toro movies, the “monsters” are misunderstood and it’s the humans who are the real beasts. While The Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth may haunt our dreams, the film’s villain is Captain Vidal. In The Shape of Water, The Amphibian Man is the romantic lead while Richard Strickland is the true monster. But if you take away the supernatural, what do you have left? Del Toro answers that question with his new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s dark, twisted novel Nightmare Alley. Working in a similar thematic vein despite the lack of supernatural creatures, the film allows del Toro to fully explore monstrous humanity through the character study of his doomed protagonist. The film is immaculately crafted, almost to its own detriment as it never seems as filthy as the souls of its grifters. Nevertheless, if you love del Toro’s previous work and the noir genre, you’ll be instantly enraptured by Nightmare Alley.
Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a drifter who finds his way to working for a carnival in 1939. There, he starts picking up on the tricks of the trade, especially from veteran performing couple Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn). Stanton also falls for fellow carny Molly (Rooney Mara) and convinces her that with tricks he’s learned from Zeena and Pete they could make a go of it in much classier establishments than a traveling circus. A couple years later, Stanton and Molly are performing the act, but Stanton still wants more. He gets his opportunity to fleece the wealthy with “spook shows” (pretending he can communicate with the dead) with the help of scheming psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who records her patients and then passes on the info to Stanton. However, as Stanton and Lilith get closer, their latest con threatens to doom Stanton to a fate worse than death.
One of the hallmarks of the noir genre is fatalism. You can’t escape your fate no matter how hard you try, and furthermore, you will be complicit in your own downfall. Del Toro understands this key pillar of the genre and embraces it completely in telling Stanton’s story. From the opening frames where Stanton is burying a body in a decaying house and then setting the house ablaze, we see a man trying to completely erase a past that still holds him captive. From there, del Toro and Cooper keep us guessing about Stanton. Is he a damaged individual trying to avoid repeating the mistakes of his father, or is he simply a blank slate being molded into something new by the carny world? It’s a little bit of both, and it makes for a captivating tale of damnation where Stanton is no different than the freakshow’s preserved stillborn birth with a big eye in the middle of its forehead—a grotesque oddity masquerading as something more.
Nightmare Alley frequently works in these broad strokes because that’s where the genre is most comfortable. It’s a movie of big personalities where Blanchett eats up the screen as the femme fatale and Cooper shines as the damned and damnable Stanton, but there’s still room for this amazing cast to add some shading to their characters. Everyone is memorable even if the confines of the story means everyone has to play their limited part of supporting figures in the downfall of Stanton Carlisle. These broad strokes also work on the film’s canvas as del Toro, who has always had an eye for production design, fills the frames with canry banners touting “damnation” and “man or beast?” before throwing the characters into the icy confines of dominating art deco interiors. Coupled with Dan Lausten’s marvelous cinematography and Nathan Johnson’s haunting score, the biggest strike against Nightmare Alley is that it looks too good. Too often the film mirrors Stanton’s polished exterior rather than his monstrous true self.
Some may also take issue with the film’s runtime (it goes a full 40 minutes longer than the 1947 version), and while there are bits that could certainly be trimmed (the 1947 version wisely doesn’t waste time on the specifics of Pete’s cold reading technique; the how is inconsequential to the fact that Stanton uses it when he’s told he shouldn’t), it also allows del Toro to flesh out the film in some rewarding ways, like with the character of Molly or providing more insight into Stanton’s past. When you enjoy spending time in this noir (as I do, especially since we get so few unabashed noirs these days), it’s hard to argue with getting to luxuriate in the film’s dark and twisted vibe.
And despite the lack of supernatural creatures, Nightmare Alley is very much a Guillermo del Toro film. There are no misunderstood monsters here; there are only vile creatures, and rather than making them the antagonist, Nightmare Alley uses them as protagonists, which in some ways makes the film the darkest one del Toro has ever done. Perhaps the closest companion in his filmography is Crimson Peak where if you love the genre, you’re going to love to see what del Toro does within it. The new adaptation takes nothing away from the 1947 version, but it shows a deep appreciation for the noir genre and all the bleakness therein. Nightmare Alley may have a shiny exterior, but its heart is pitch black.
Nightmare Alley opens in theaters on December 17th.