Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Premise: Set in the 1940s, a carny (Bradley Cooper) learns the art of manipulation and leverages it to great success. He allies with the therapist (Cate Blanchett) of a powerful businessman and uses inside information to exploit the wealthy man’s grief.
What Works: Guillermo del Toro’s movies are usually fantasy stories but Nightmare Alley takes a slightly different approach. This is a tale about illusion and the power and potential danger that come with tapping into the audience’s desires. Del Toro’s movies are often grotesquely beautiful and that is the case here but in a specifically stylized way. Nightmare Alley is set in the 1940s and the movie channels the aesthetics of film noir. That genre suits this story as Nightmare Alley is about corruption and deceit. While it is highly styled, Nightmare Alley retains a grounded and organic look. This makes for an interesting tension that complements the themes of the story. Nightmare Alley is about Stanton Carlisle, a drifter who joins a traveling carnival and picks up the craft of manipulation. Stanton is a natural showman who learns the power and profitability of giving the audience what they want and Nightmare Alley is, at its root, a show business story. While the film adheres to that narrative template, it’s disguised by the intrigue between Stanton and a femme fatale therapist played by Cate Blanchett and the intricacy of Stanton’s scam to bilk a wealthy businessman played by Richard Jenkins. These characters are dangerous people and the moviemakers and the cast create a threatening atmosphere without hardly any overt violence. The menace is in the camera angles and the line delivery. But the film also toys with our sympathies. One of the many fascinating aspects of Nightmare Alley is the way it explores how illusion can offer catharsis. That opens up a complicated ethical problem; Stanton’s lies offer comfort to the bereaved. As often happens in this kind of story, Stanton overextends the lie and puts himself at risk. The actions of the characters and the way they react to one another are loaded with psychological meaning and the cast do an excellent job bringing those qualities forward without spelling them out.
What Doesn’t: The one weak spot of Nightmare Alley is Stanton’s assistant Molly, played by Rooney Mara. The actress does well in the role. The problem is that the filmmakers don’t seem to know what to do with her in the second half of the film. She is not an active part of Stanton’s scheme to defraud Jenkins’ character and Molly drifts in and out of the story in the film’s second half.
Bottom Line: Nightmare Alley is one of Guillermo del Toro’s best films. It’s beautifully crafted and tells a compelling story that possesses complicated layers of meaning and characterization. It is also a provocative examination of the power of illusion and the willingness to believe.
Episode: #884 (December 26, 2021)