Released: 20th January
Seen: 19th March
In 1946, William Lindsay Gresham wrote the novel Nightmare Alley. The novel was popular enough to be adapted into the 1947 film of the same name. Even though that film didn’t do that well at the box office it’s since been reevaluated as a classic of the film noir genre… honestly, that kind of means it makes perfect sense for Guillermo del Toro to have a go at doing it since the story matches his sensibilities and his films have enough of a timeless quality to them that all you would need to do it put a black and white filter over one of his films and you could probably pass it off as something from the 40s, which they apparently did for a special release of his version of Nightmare Alley which is just goddamn fascinating.
Nightmare Alley follows drifter Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) as he enters the world of the carnie. He joins a local carnival, led by the boisterous Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), and soon starts getting into the life which includes often setting up shows that appear supernatural when they aren’t. One such show is the mentalism act, performed by Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn) who agree to teach Stan all the tricks that go into mentalism, from cold-reading to feeding information to the mentalist without the audience knowing.
Stan is a quick study and soon leaves the carnival, along with Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) and the two take their act on the road together, gaining more and more fame as they go along by convincing people that they truly have a gift… though, how long will it be before Stan starts to believe his own lie, and just what are the effects of this kind of trickery on a man’s soul… ooooh, spooky.
Nightmare Alley pulls off a trick that very few films get to pull off, namely making its protagonist a giant steaming ball of shit who you can’t look away from. Very few films can pull off that kind of main character (the last one that comes to mind is the brilliant I Care A Lot). We follow the evolution of a con artist slowly learning and utilizing his con to enrich himself and it’s darkly fascinating, Cooper is usually a pretty compelling performer but he pulled out all the stops in order to sell us on Stan because every time you think you have to just look away and hope God sorts this man out, he does something that drags your eyes right back on him.
Most of Nightmare Alley is almost an expose on the trickery performed by mediums, even pointedly calling out that it’s OK when everyone knows it’s just a trick but the second you let people actually believe you’re talking to the dead you’ve crossed a very strong moral line. Nightmare Alley really lays this on thick in the best way possible, the entire story is a tale of how going down this path of life can only end badly for the person pulling off these tricks on those who are so desperate for help in their time of grief.
In a critique that could best be called my “No shit Sherlock” moment, now is the point when we talk about how good a Guillermo Del Toro film looks… shocker of all shocks, this film looks absolutely fantastic from start to finish, everything from the colour palette to the shot composition to the details that fill this world are all completely immaculate on a level that’s impressive even by Del Toro standards. The man’s films always look good, it’ll actually be newsworthy the day he makes a film that looks anything less than completely stellar, but this one is just on another level. I wouldn’t be shocked if this is the film that sneaks up to take Best Cinematographer at the Oscars because everything is immaculate (Hell, the cinematographer Dan Laustsen probably should’ve gotten an Oscar for his work on Shape of Water so he’s overdue!).
The problem with talking about Nightmare Alley is that it’s a Guillermo Del Toro film, the bar is already set so high that there’s only a certain amount of things that you can say about it beyond “This is what you expect from Guillermo Del Toro”. In this specific case, Nightmare Alley is great, full of incredible performances and visuals that will delight you and a story that still works so well 60 years after it was first told with a final punchline that’s as dark as it is brilliant. If you’re in the mood for a dark thrill ride through the world of mediums and scam artists, this is a pretty damn great time.