Dir: Guillermo del Toro. Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman. 15, 150 minutes.
In Nightmare Alley, our hero Stanton Carlisle – an ambitious carny played by Bradley Cooper – is haunted by the perpetual feeling that he’s being watched. Not by the ghosts that habitually inhabit Guillermo del Toro’s films – be it the spindly limbed phantoms of Crimson Peak, or the boy with the shattered head staring out from the shadows in The Devil’s Backbone. Nor is it God, or at least in the traditional sense. No, the thing that’s really watching Stanton – and watching his every move – is about as del Toro-esque as you can get: a foetus, suspended in a medical jar, with a big, cyclopean eye planted in the middle of its forehead. It knows Stanton’s ultimate fate, but it will not tell. Maybe it knows your fate, too.
It’s the most potent symbol in a film that’s full of codes and mysteries, and unfurls languidly but hypnotically. Nightmare Alley is the first of del Toro’s films to be entirely absent of the supernatural – here, magic and spirits are simply the products of human trickery. It’s also a rare adaptation from him, excluding his iterations of the Hellboy and Blade comics. The story of Nightmare Alley comes from a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, which was inspired by the stories told to him by a former sideshow employee, who he befriended while volunteering as a medic during the Spanish Civil War.
There was one type of attraction that particularly fascinated him, that of the geek, which exemplified some of the worst impulses of humanity (and, no, it has nothing to do with Comic-Con or The Big Bang Theory). When Stan first arrives at the carnival – one populated by human-headed spiders and girls who shoot lightning bolts out of their fingers – he’s taken under the wing of one Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe). Clem describes to him how putting a little opium in the spirit bottle can steadily strip away the humanity and independent will from an already desperate man. That’s how you produce a geek, who will crawl around his pen as the crowds gawk. He will moan in agony and rip the heads off chickens with his bare teeth – because there’s nothing else to eat and no hope left.
Nightmare Alley is a noir, though del Toro doesn’t film it like the modern noir pastiches that we’re used to, ones dripping in gnarled voiceovers and endless rainstorms. Stan moves into the orbit of the carnival’s resident clairvoyant, Zeena (Toni Collette), and begins to study the art of trickery. He decides to strike out on his own after a sudden tragedy, and on a path that eventually lands him in the office of psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She is pure femme fatale, and Blanchett clearly relishes in her own feline magnetism. As an actor, she knows the precise ways to angle her chin or stretch her body out along a chaise longue, giving her profile the grace of a Grecian statue. Del Toro, in return, knows how to light her, often so that we’ll catch the slightest, reptilian shimmer of Lilith’s eyeshadow.
Nightmare Alley’s script, which del Toro co-wrote with screenwriter and film historian Kim Morgan (the pair married last year), alters a few things about Gresham’s story. But it’s hard to think of a noir story that would be better suited to del Toro as a director – the arch-fabulist who fears men more than he does monsters. The image of the geek combines horror, American disillusionment, and the heart of darkness that Cooper is able to stir within those crystal blue eyes of his. Del Toro can do worldbuilding in his sleep, but you might also find Cooper’s brittle performance, filled with such elemental sadness, hard to shake off. Nightmare Alley is the shadow that lingers.
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