Review of Nightmare Alley
By: Jenna Sparks

Naming director Guillermo del Toro can bring to mind a plethora of inspired projects. On a personal level, del Toro is one of my favorite filmmakers and with good reason. With a rich roster of films he's helmed, like Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, Crimson Peak, Hellboy, and Pacific Rim to name just a few, it's no surprise he'd tackle a project like Nightmare Alley.

Published in 1946 by author William Lindsay Gresham, the story follows Stanton Carlisle through the curious world of carnival life and eventual despair. It was a novel that was inspired by Gresham's own life and his conversations with a former carnival worker. There is mystique in the pages as each chapter is inspired by a different card from the Tarot deck.

Shortly after its publication, the novel was adapted into its first feature film in 1947. But in the most modern adaptation, directed by Guillermo del Toro, who also wrote the screenplay along with Kim Morgan, we see the powered influences of del Toro's imagination mesh meticulously with the content originally written by Gresham; mindfully, del Toro's film is not a remake of the 1947 film, but a new adaptation of the novel.

Nightmare Alley centers Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper; A Star is Born, Silver Linings Playbook), a quiet man who's clearly got a handful of secrets. This becomes apparent when he simply walks away from a house he's just burned down with a dead body still inside. He winds up at a 10-in-1 carnival and under the tent starring the event's geek. and watches as the geek performs the promised feat of eating a live chicken for the audience. Afterwards, he finds himself employed by the carnival's barker, Clem (Willem Defoe) and starts working with the mystic Zeena (Toni Collette; Krampus, Hereditary, Velvet Goldmine) and her partner, Pete (David Strathairn; The Expanse, Godzilla), but not before falling in love with the enchanting Electric Girl, Molly (Rooney Mara; Carol, The Girls with the Dragon Tattoo (remake)).

Pete and Zeena clue Stan in on their mentalism act, giving him insight into cold-readings and coded language used to entice the audience. Pete allows Stan glimpses into his sacred notebook, a journal filled with valuable information regarding the act Zeena and he had been performing for decades together. He informs Stan the notebook could easily be misused, that its reader might soon convince himself of the power inside, further expanding that he didn't want that fate for Stan. While Pete is a struggling alcoholic, Stan keeps himself clean of the stuff, reminding those around him that he never partakes in drinking alcohol.

After major events turn the page for Molly and Stan to run away together, Stan takes Pete's notebook and the lovebirds say goodbye to the carnival (but not before a violent scramble with Bruno, the Strong Man (Ron Perlman; Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy)).

We jump five years in the future and Molly and Stan are performing a clairvoyant, mentalism act they've been perfecting over the past half-decade. Everything is looking up for the couple. It's only when they come across a woman in the audience who challenges Stan's ability things immediately move into rocky territory. The woman, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett; Lord of the Rings, Thor: Ragnarök, Carol), is read to filth by Stan publicly. This act, though, opens the door for prominent figures to reach out to Stan to help them. First there's Judge Kimball and his wife; both patients of Lilith, a psychologist. The two team up and Stan inherits plenty of information to perform a "spookshow" for the judge, hoping to allow the man closure regarding his son's death.

Soon, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins; The Shape of Water, Step-Brothers) enters the fray as a powerful man and also another patient of Lilith's. He has, admittedly, done horrible things in his past, but when Stan baffles Grindle and his cronies during a lie detector test, Grindle offers Stan $10,000 (almost $200,000 today) for every session proceeding. His goal is that his dead lover, Dorrie, manifest so he can apologize for forcing her to have a botched abortion that left her dead. With the aid of Lilith, Stan delves deeper and deeper into Grindle's past, all the while drinking more and more excessively, a feat he had never anticipated succumbing to. Molly, on the other hand, is growing weary of Stan's behavior and his crave and appetite for the power he's using under the guise of comforting despairing folks. Everything begins to crumble for Stan as he deepens his attachment to Lilith, alcohol, and ego. If you've read the book or seen the films, you know the darker material that's being left out (to avoid spoilers). The film ends on a slightly different note, with the adjustment of a single word in the final line. The story goes full circle and leaves us with both a satisfying yet completely unhappy, grim finale. Upon watching the modern take on Nightmare Alley, it feels as though Guillermo del Toro was "born for it" (heh). While the story lacks what del Toro has become most popular for (magical, dark fairytales), it reminds us that del Toro's only strengths aren't in fantastical lore, but of comprehending and presenting complicated humans. It's not just alcoholism that Stan tries desperately to avoid, but the depth of why he won't drink that leads to why he suddenly will drink. It's not just power-hungry people, and it's not just bad guys or predatory behavior. It's a splendor of the convoluted behavior that makes the human existence beyond black and white. In an interview, del Toro explains: "…And the grift that Stan does is ultimately small, but he uses it to give hope to the hopeless. I remember when my father was kidnapped in 1998, one of the first warnings that came with that from the negotiator of the kidnapping - he said, beware of the psychics. They're going to show up really early. And no sooner had I hung up the phone than I went to see my mother, and there were two psychics sitting in the living room telling her they knew and they could lead us to where my father was because they could sense him. And this made an indelible impression. And that cruelty, which I saw firsthand, also is part of the spirit in this movie."

It's a statement that lingers throughout the film; Stan is neither good nor bad. He is an opportunist seeking something far greater for himself. He is a selfish person, who wants what he wants and believes he can and will get it. He genuinely believes, like so many popular figures and televangelist faith leaders that he has something to offer his audiences, where once he was vulnerable himself, but soon believes he is invulnerable.

The story itself is brilliantly told and modernized in ways that don't offend the source material. Like all of del Toro's work, there are plenty of opportunities where we see the face-value of the psychology behind the story, but also hidden in the crevices of the tones, characters, and dialogue are the packed punches of scathing understanding. It absolutely feels like a film of the 1940's made and produced in the 2020's. A captivating piece, as well, is the use of brutality. In my opinion, del Toro knows when the level of violence and gore becomes too much. He's also been sensitive to that, using the psychology of color to demonstrate the violence (think Crimson Peak). While there is the explicitness of the geek show, and the head-shredding violence of the climactic confrontation toward the end, the level of gore and violence never becomes truly shocking. It feels like the perfect amount of restraint and usage to show us the complexities of violence in multiple layers in different ways.

Longtime collaborator of Guillermo del Toro, Dan Laustsen, earned himself an Oscar nomination for his cinematography work, and it's absolutely deserved. Like all del Toro films, tonal balance is the most unambiguous piece that dictates the prolific stylings we've come to associate with his films. Nightmare Alley, while there are no fantastical elements, still feels like a perfect addition to both the director and cinematographer's filmographies belonging to the same world that doesn't feel stale or oversaturated.

My absolute favorite parts of the film, though, were the set and costume designs. There are moments of both factors that are, deservingly, jaw-dropping. The most memorable character is Dr. Lilith Ritter, played by the unfathomably talented Cate Blanchett, because everything about her is dictated through her wardrobe and her surroundings. The palette used in her office is very del Toro; the warm greens, the manipulated honey and golds, the chilled hues cast from the snowy exterior through the windows cast against the yellow flickers of the fireplace. This set is my happy place.

The film's production designer, Tamara Deverell explained the set was inspired by The Weil-Wargolt Study at the Brooklyn Museum in New York where the walls are paneled in olive wood veneer and geometric shapes and the room itself adorned in Art Deco furnishing. Once Deverell had shown the room to del Toro, the director admitted, "This is Lilith,". The designer expanded upon the ideas of utilizing subliminal Jungian imagery and Rorschach imprints throughout the room.

It's not the only set that serves as a reminder of the absolute talent of set designers and architecture, but for me, it's the most impactful. Del Toro and Deverell have a long history of creating designs that linger in the mind (think back to the wallpaper in the apartment in the Shape of Water), and every minute of this film is such a feast for the eyes.

The wardrobe and styling, very much in the same vein, is so integral to the storytelling. Looking at Lilith's wardrobe alone, she tends to be dressed in darker shades; upon first inspection, her wardrobe appears very conservative, but ultimately, is manipulated to reveal the truth (again, a signature of Guillermo del Toro in telling the tonal differences of story progression through color and wardrobe). It's very synonymous with her character and the story itself. She never looks unprepared and it's just another facet of who Lilith is. Molly, on the other hand, has her own beautiful arrangement of attire. From the time Molly is introduced as the Electric Girl in the burgundy-brown costume to putting her in stark colors (red, whites, and blacks), I think is also telling who she is and the role she plays in Stan's life.

While the woman in the film and their wardrobe are significant, the men's attire is also just as telling. Stan's wardrobe is so finely calculated. During his time assisting Zeena and Pete and wearing the ill-fit orange suit up until his wearing a smoking jacket to his period-perfect mustache, there's never a boring moment to Stan's wardrobe. Another meticulous detail is Grimble, played by del Toro fave, Richard Dawkins; all you have to do is look at the character to know who he is. There appears to be such an insight about his appearance, from the beard and glasses to the absolute perfect tailoring of his coats, that you really appreciate the other Oscar nomination for Luis Sequeira's costuming.

Regarding the cast, it is a stellar ensemble; Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Richard Dawkins, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, and Willem Defoe make up an abundance of magnificent talent. We also are treated to smaller appearances by Mary Steenburgen and Clifton Collins Jr. The biggest shame is that it seems the most utilized actors are Cooper, Blanchett, and Mara. Phenomenal as they are, you can't help but crave more from Collette, Perlman, and Defoe. If you couldn't tell, Cate Blanchett is the star of the show. In every scene, it's impossible to take your eyes off her. She is enigmatic to a point of distraction, but who's honestly complaining?

One small opinion I have that seems to differ from everyone else is Bradley Cooper. Cooper is, no one would argue, a brilliant actor. And he is absolutely amazing as Stanton Carlisle. But with actors like Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, and Toni Collette, it's hard to remember he's the one you're meant to be paying attention to. Again, this is nothing against his acting abilities, skills, or star-power, but you put a chocolate souffle next to bananas foster, aware that both are delectable and enticing, but you're going to watch those bananas foster as they're set aflame.

The film stands at a solid 7.2/10 on IMDb and 79% on Rotten Tomatoes. None of the actors earned Oscar nominations for this year's season, and frankly, the only one I'm startled by is Cate Blanchett's absence from the list. But it did walk away with Dan Laustsen's Cinematography nomination, Luis Sequiera's Costume Design nomination, Tamara Deverell and Shane Vieau's Production Design nomination, and Best Film nomination. And that feels right. Of course, I'd love to see del Toro nominated at every opportunity but that's strictly because I adore his work. Nightmare Alley is a perfect adaptation for the 21st century without losing its importance and the impact of its content. It's hard to watch because you know you're about to spiral into a dark abyss right along with Stan, but everything that surrounds this film is what makes it so enjoyably watchable and beautiful. Not to mention, the nods to cult classics like 1932's Freaks. It's an intense experience that lingers long after watching.

I give it a 5 out of 5 stars!

Nightmare Alley can be streamed on Hulu and HBOMax.

Let The Contributor Know What You Think!

HTML Comment Box is loading comments...