If you’re in the know, you’ve likely known for years that Guillermo del Toro is a genius. A brilliant auteur with a taste for the macabre and fantastic like nobody else in the industry. The unfortunate downside is that del Toro’s unique brand of cinema hasn’t always caught on with audiences or studio execs. His career is flooded with projects that never got off the ground (his fabled “At the Mountains of Madness” passion project, his adaptation of Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion”, etc.) and other movies that got made, but never really got the love they deserved (Crimson Peak comes to mind, ditto the Hellboy movies). And of course that’s not even getting started on del Toro’s stillborn adaptation of “The Hobbit” (stalled for years by MGM’s corporate shenanigans) and whatever the hell happened with Pacific Rim: Uprising.
But then The Shape of Water happened. While the film is indisputably a masterpiece, it’s still not GDT’s greatest picture. (For my money, that’s Pan’s Labyrinth.) Shape of Water didn’t really offer much of anything that GDT hadn’t already done to similarly marvelous effect in previous movies, yet somehow and for whatever reason, this was the one that caught fire. The film took just over $195 million globally on a reported budget of $20 million, then GDT took home Best Director and Best Picture at the Oscars.
This was a game-changer for del Toro’s fanbase. Now that GDT had some Hollywood clout, who knows what he could do next? Maybe he could finally get that adaptation of “At the Mountains of Madness” off the ground. Maybe Universal would come back with an(other!) offer to shepherd the Dark Universe. Maybe he would be given more license to go bigger and crazier!
Or maybe he could make another brooding Oscar contender, but half an hour longer, with three times the budget and more big-name stars. Enter Nightmare Alley.
Our stage is set in 1939, as a character helpfully explains that some “Charlie Chaplie-lookin’ fella” has just invaded Poland. Producer Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, a grifter who stumbles his way into work at a traveling carnival. I might add that Stan is introduced dragging a corpse into a hole under some floorboards before he burns down the corpse and the whole house around it. So we know right off the bat that Stan isn’t a good guy.
Anyway, Stan gets to work at the carnival and discovers all sorts of acts and exhibits that we of the modern day recognize as hogwash at best or outright racist at worst. Of course the trailers have made a huge deal about the carnival freaks (or “geeks”, as they were known back in the day) who were more like monsters than men. But as the plot unfolds, head carney Clem (Willem Dafoe) reveals that the geek is just a washed-up drug addict plied with opium and booze until they look and act monstrous enough to bite the head off a chicken.
Speaking of which, the geek in this movie is played by someone named Paul Anderson, and not by Doug Jones. In fact, Doug Jones is nowhere to be seen in this picture, a dead giveaway that there are no monsters in this movie. No literal monsters, anyway. We’ll come back to that.
Long story short, Stan falls in with the fortune teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and a broken-down carney who’s retired to drink himself to death (Pete, played by David Straitharn). Together, they teach Stan everything he needs to know to become a first-rate mentalist. The audience thinks he’s reading minds and communicating with the dead, but it’s really a matter of elaborate verbal cues and careful observation of the mark.
Early and often, the film makes the point that there is no magic, there’s only the hard work that nobody else ever sees. Yet the audience wants to believe in magic. More than that, everyone in the audience wants to be seen, their faults forgiven and their hardships recognized.
The film has a lot to say about lying as entertainment. The audience comes in expecting to be lied to, yet willing to suspend disbelief and pretend that it’s true. Thus the entertainer provides some measure of comfort and hope, yet one character questions that hope isn’t worth anything unless it’s true. On the other hand, nobody in the film ever thinks to mention that a crucial function of entertainment is to use lies to tell the truth. And this is a crucial factor in what goes wrong.
See, Pete very explicitly warns Stan against doing “spook shows”, in which a mentalist performs a seance or communicates with the dead for an extended length of time at the request of some grieving loved one. Of course Stan doesn’t see the harm in this, not when it helps the grieving loved ones to move on and certainly not when they’re paying for the privilege. Thus the plot unfolds and Stan rises to greater fame and fortune through communing with the dead.
Alas, Stan doesn’t realize until too late that if anyone is gullible enough to actually believe that their loved ones really are in a better place, and grief-stricken enough that they’d do anything to see their loved ones just one more time, they might take that faith and desperation to psychotic extremes. What’s worse, as Stan gets increasingly large payments from wealthier patrons, he starts dealing with the kind of people who have more money than sense. The kind of people unfamiliar with anything that can’t be bought, and don’t take kindly to being told “no”. The kind of people who (like Stan himself) are fundamentally incapable of having enough of anything. Put it all together, and… well, there comes a point where it’s hard to tell if Stan is resorting to blatantly illegal and unethical means just to get rich or to save his own skin.
As with so many of del Toro’s films, this one is strongly focused on the line between man and monster. In this particular case, the film is all about Stan’s gradual corruption into something terrible and subhuman. As the plot unfolds, Stan’s rank dishonesty and unchecked ambition push him increasingly deeper into a vanishingly small corner until he’s finally undone by his own hubris and greed. Gotta say, it’s genuinely fascinating to see a performer of Bradley Cooper’s inexhaustible charisma play a character so hopelessly beyond all sympathy.
Of course it helps that Cooper is surrounded by an all-star cast. We’ve got Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Ron Perlman, David Straitharn, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Tim Blake Nelson pokes his head in at the end, the list goes on and on. Even in the minor supporting roles, we’ve got such legendary character actors as Clifton Collins Jr., Mark Povinelli, Peter MacNeill, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, and so on and so forth. The film is positively bursting with talent and there isn’t a single dud actor in the bunch.
That being said, it is rather important to note that they’re all acting in an adaptation of a pulp novel that came out back in 1946, and was already adapted to film the following year. It’s also important to note that the cast is in a movie from a director explicitly known for his expansive production design and elaborate effects. Put it all together and you’ve got a cast of actors playing threadbare noir archetypes, all dwarfed by immaculately detailed art deco architecture. Sure, it looks beautiful, but it lends a kind of artificial sheen that tends to distract from the tragic downfall of our protagonist.
Cooper does more than well enough to get the point across, don’t get me wrong, but there’s definitely a sense that it might’ve had a bit more pathos and a more distinctly human feel without quite so many bells and whistles. It might also have led to a slimmer runtime, which would’ve helped.
But overall, I have absolutely no problem giving Nightmare Alley a full recommendation. The cast is superlative, the presentation is marvelous, the themes are elegantly stated, and the protagonist’s tragic downfall is compelling to watch. I only wish the film had more of the heart and the passion that marks the finest of GDT’s works, but that only makes this a lesser del Toro picture, which is still more than good enough.
Such a damn shame this one is already getting crowded out by the overstuffed December. I can only hope you check this one out at the first opportunity.