Nightmare Alley (2022)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriters: Guillermo Del Toro, Kim Morgan
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins
A Guillermo del Toro film is an event, a spectacle which has the potential to transcend cinema and become something more. In his return to the big screen following The Shape of Water (2017), the Academy Award winner turns his hand at re-adapting William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name (it was previously adapted by Edmund Goulding in 1947). Exploring the seedy underbelly of the carnival and showbiz trade, Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle works at a carnival as a runner and stagehand before acquiring the secrets to a powerful mentalism act. He and fellow performer Molly (Rooney Mara) make their way to the city to find their fortunes, only for greed and lust for power to intertwine with dark pasts and darker secrets.
Del Toro’s choice to switch monsters for men sees him step into psychoanalysis-inspired noir and away from the fantastical. Despite this, his experience and talent allows him to bring to life this wonderful world with precision and flair, always touching upon the supernatural but remaining firmly grounded in the real. Backed up by the rest of the production team, from Cinematographer Dan Laustsen and Production Designer Tamara Deverell, to the beautiful costumes by Luis Sequeira, every moment in the film is a visual feast, a pleasure and a joy to behold and watch. Every second is worthy of a poster on a boy’s bedroom wall.
Through this exquisitely crafted world dance the cast, each of them firing on all cylinders to truly inhabit this world of literal Bakhtinian carnivalesque. The powerhouse trio of Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett never have a single down moment, and it’s as much down to their performances as the writing and filmmaking talents of the crew that the 150 minute runtime feels more like 120. Every scene is charged with need for power, control being wrestled between the performers.
Of particular note is a sequence in the third act, where plans and cons are made and threaten to unravel. It is suspense in its purest form, built on emotion and empathy rather than some monster going ‘boo’. Not only is it suspenseful because it is magnificently crafted, erected meticulously over the two hours preceding, but because the outcome for the particular event is almost inevitable. The hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as if you’re in the carnival’s Electra act. You shuffle in your chair. You realise that it is working because the film is showing you what must happen if the world is to truly be reflected on screen. This is how people really are, and that the cast and crew can capture this so perfectly is incredibly rare, making it even more remarkable.
Much of Nightmare Alley’s story is devoted to looking into mankind and seeing their true selves, to see one’s true nature underneath the mask presented to others. When we step into that alley of nightmares, we know that we must inevitably give up our true natures, we must be found out because we want to be (as Stan tells Blanchett’s Dr. Ritter). What we are, it seems, is beastly, and we will inevitably give up the pretence and return to being beasts, to being monsters, and for that we shall get our comeuppance.
Even if del Toro’s vision doesn’t go too far beyond the basic psychoanalytical concepts of the 40s when they were first introduced to film (such as in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound) and when the “Nightmare Alley” novel was written, and chooses instead to play it fairly safe in terms of character and storyline, what is on the screen is stunning. Nightmare Alley is a truly marvellous carnival ride which will likely be unfairly missed and skipped over, much to everyone’s detriment.