Nightmare Alley Review: Sympathy for the Freaks , Film Companion

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo Del Toro, Kim Morgan, William Lindsay Gresham
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willam Defoe, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn
Streaming on: Disney + Hotstar

It’s possible to see Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley play out like an anti ‘American Dream’ story, a cautionary tale of an outsider working his way up and his downward spiral into darkness. In a manner that befits del Toro’s macabre sensibilities, this journey happens to begin as a helping hand in a rural carnival, where, few minutes into the movie, Bradley Cooper’s Stanton finds himself inside a funhouse. Del Toro has fun with it. More Cocteau than Giger, he designs it like a baroque grindhouse monument to the devil, with insides that would make both proud. It drips with rain water as he ventures into its bowels to catch “the geek”, a freak show on the loose who bites off live chicken heads and reptiles in his pit as people watch with fascination. The spectatorial aspect of this disgusting novelty act holds the key to the film: people at the carnival watching the geek reduced to a beast is a bit like us watching Stanton’s dark soul unravel. 

Nightmare Alley is a pulp novel from the forties (remade into a Hollywood film), and not a sexy subject for current moviegoing culture. But it’s in tandem with the filmmaker’s penchant for reviving outdated genres, like he did with bringing back gothic romance with Crimson Peak. Despite the lack of a supernatural element – a first for del Toro – the world of the film is completely up his alley. He gives the carnival setting a grimy reality, literally on the fringes of society like a refugee settlement for misfits and outcasts. A nimble black gay man performs as The Contortionist. Ron Perlman’s Bruno is a strongman. But the carnival’s most prized possession might be Enoch, an obese newborn bottled and preserved, described as “this little fucker who killed his mother at childbirth”.

Willem Dafoe somehow manages to not make you hate him even when he’s explaining to Stan the three-act structure of the trap that makes geeks out of homeless drunks and addicts. Del Toro gives these people – the “carnies” – a dignity and pride. They are honest and hard working, and not half as grotesque as the old rich men with dirty secrets in Buffalo, New York, where the story shifts in the second hour. 

All the while, Stan learns the hacks of mind-reading from the avuncular Pete (a wonderful David Strathairn), husband of the tarot card-reading Toni Collette character. He gets the essence fast: tell people what they want to hear. He develops an ability to sniff out their vulnerabilities and performs with natural showmanship. Every time we have a situation where his scam is going to be busted, he gets himself out of it, like Donald Draper with a Mandrake moustache pulling off miracles in his client pitches. (Cooper is a potent combination of charisma and a finely tuned performance, ending with a terrific closing act). Around midway, the cracks start showing: Stan’s noir hero carries traumas of his own, and Cate Blanchett’s femme fatale psychologist gets a whiff of them. 

Del Toro finds fascinating intersection points between mentalism and what was going on in American society: a couple coping with losing their only son in World War I; a rich, predatory man looking for atonement. Some of them are a byproduct of the 40s-50s film noir. Stan digging into confidential information of his clients without their knowledge is just another variation on the Raymond Chandler private eye rummaging through the old files. And yet despite the director’s masterful hold on his subject, the film keeps you out of it. It doesn’t entangle you in knots the way the best films in the genre are meant to. Nightmare Alley comes alive in the last forty minutes or so, when the whole thing builds up to a one-last-con-job act: a seance needs to be performed, and a ghost needs to be summoned. Del Toro finds a way to do his thing. 

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