Nightmare Alley is what happens when a director with a clear vision and an established body of work meant to convey a specific set of ideas works with top actors to fully realize a haunting and mesmerizing film. Based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham (It’s actually the second filmic adaptation of the text… the first appeared in 1947 from director Edmund Goulding.), the movie shows audiences the life of Stanton Carlisle, a silent, blank slate at the start who enters the bizarre and disturbing lifestyle of a carnival worker, makes it big as a mentalist who appears to audiences to have uncanny abilities to see into regions beyond, and then ignores all warnings as he gets closer and closer to danger. Beginning with the literature of the 1900s and firmly solidified with such films as Citizen Kane, audiences have ever since been fascinated by stories about the humble beginnings of charismatic men, their astronomical rise, and their meteoric descent. Director and co-writer (with Kim Morgan) Guillermo del Toro knows this all too well, and he makes a daring departure from his typical use of magical realism and/or mythological, fantastical, or supernatural sympathetic monsters to firmly establish Nightmare Alley as a daring modern noir masterpiece which focuses exclusively on human monsters and the damage they inflict on those around them. Due to its period-perfect set pieces, its captivating locations, its inspired costuming, its engaging slow-drip storytelling, its expert delivery of thought-provoking themes, motifs and warnings, and the masterclass in acting which unfolds on screen, Nightmare Alley is a high watermark for a director who regularly achieves excellence in his work.
Nightmare Alley feels like what it would look like if Guillermo del Toro made There Will Be Blood. There are no ghosts or satyrs or gill-men in this movie… there is simply an unflinching meditation on the rise and fall of a man who achieves the American Dream by nightmarish means and suffers a fate which will linger in audiences’ minds long after the screening. The nightmare is what happens for viewers after the credits roll and they begin to examine the nuanced characters of the film, their complicated motivations and their roles in their world, and the cycle of exploitation which knows no limits in class or privilege. del Toro’s work is no stranger to the extent of human cruelty, but Nightmare Alley is full of characters who demonstrate it in such a callus and unflinching manner that audiences can’t help but feel as if they’re being boiled alive as the stakes ratchet up and the characters become more desperate. Like all film noir staples, this is a movie where no one in power—whether they be the head of a carnival troupe, a psychologist to the wealthy, or a titan of industry— is compassionate and only the completely helpless are capable of caring about anything other than themselves. Because of this, del Toro achieves his most disturbing film in spite of what might amount to the least amount of physical violence in relation to the runtime in all of his filmography. The most disturbing violence in this film is committed through its characters’ words.
A movie with this formula would be nothing without its cast. del Toro brings back some of his regular players such as Ron Perlman and Richard Jenkins, and Rooney Mara delivers a solid performance in a role which isn’t as dynamic as the ones she’s used to playing. But in many ways this is an ensemble piece, and actors such as Willem Dafoe and Toni Collette who regularly captivate audiences in meaty leading roles dazzle in their limited presence in this film. Cate Blanchett thrills as Dr. Lilith Ritter, a character who allows Blanchett to experiment with a shocking departure from her typical warm or matriarchal performances. Bradley Cooper’s Stan is the main character of Nightmare Alley, and it is Cooper’s performance of a lifetime which makes this film truly excel. Even though the first time we see Stan there’s a corpse and a fire, Cooper’s performance forces audiences to identify with him and relate to him for the majority of the film. Even as his actions become more depraved, the audience can’t help but be drawn in to his delicate manner of speech, the convincing empathy in his voice, and the smoothness of his appearance and his presence. In this way, the audience can become fooled— just like one of Stan’s marks— into thinking he can be good or that relating to him can be a fulfilling experience. Even during his gritty downfall we might feel bad for him. These are all film noir tropes which have been handled in cinema to varying degrees of quality for decades, but it is Cooper’s three-dimensional performance which elevates this genre piece to Oscar-worthy heights. We might not want to follow him through his dark journey, but Cooper makes sure we can’t look away during each and every scene.
Guillermo del Toro’s body of work has always aspired to communicate complex ideas. Even his more commercial work like Hellboy exceeds the perceived limitations of the superhero genre. But his masterpieces like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Shape of Water all communicate a single idea above all: the real monsters of the world are human beings, just like you and me. del Toro typically achieves this in his movies by presenting the dichotomy between a sympathetic literal monster and a monstrous human being. Nightmare Alley forgoes creatures entirely to focus exclusively on the real monsters of the world and the cycle of abuse and exploitation they embroil themselves in. The powerless in del Toro’s films tend to be the most righteous and empathetic. This is still the case in Nightmare Alley, and it’s interesting to see Stan’s empathy wane (or at the very least, become more and more fake and transparent) as he grows in power and influence. del Toro’s trademark gore and horror movie panache is still present in this film, but by dialing back on how it is presented in Nightmare Alley he creates a truly distinct entry in his oeuvre.
Nightmare Alley is a beautiful looking film and every scene is visually striking, but even so it might not be remembered as distinctly as some of del Toro’s movies because it lacks the unforgettably complex aesthetic of the unique creatures of his prior works. In place of beautiful monsters, the characters dazzle in their period costuming. For locations, we are treated to lived-in carnival spaces and, later, the luxurious hotels, offices, and living spaces of a bygone era. Such environments pop on screen and del Toro is a master of using light and space and color to tell his story. There are also neat camera tricks and fades which are characteristics of the time period in which the movie takes place and the original book and film were created. It says something about the strength of del Toro’s body of work that this gorgeous film won’t be remembered as his best-looking picture. Nightmare Alley will instead best be remembered for its storytelling and performances, and these visuals do a fine job of supporting that.
Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare alley is an excellent film— easily the best movie of 2021— and one of the hauntingly greatest examples of storytelling in this director’s impressive career.