Nightmare Alley Stays True to Its Name

Hello, everyone! Happy Post Holidays! Yesterday I watched Guillermo del Toro’s latest film Nightmare Alley. Del Toro has been my favorite writer/director since I first viewed The Devil’s Backbone as a teen, and since then, I’ve eagerly awaited the release of his films, prizing them for their gorgeously created fantasy worlds, stirring conflicts, and heartwarming themes. Expecting another entry in the niche genre that del Toro has carved for himself, I was surprised to find that Nightmare Alley is nothing like the auteur’s other movies. Cold, dark, and depressing, the movie is del Toro’s first foray into the neo-noir genre, and while the product is visually stunning, the movie lacks the director’s most winning asset: his sincerity.

Guillermo Del Toro GIF by Regal

Synopsis: Stan Carlyle (Bradley Cooper), a charmer with a mysterious past, joins a carnival in hopes of starting a new chapter in his life. There he meets an eccentric cast of characters including Clem (Willem Dafoe), the carnival’s owner, Molly (Rooney Mara), a winsome performer, and Pete and Zeena (David Strathairn and Toni Collette), who have a clever psychic act. Clem shows Stan the carnival’s cruelty by teaching him how to lure geeks to the carnival with opium. Stan learns the trick of mentalism from Pete, but starts to resent the man when he advises him against performing lucrative séances to prevent hurting others. Determined to make a name for himself, Stan plots a course that puts him in the path of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist with a few of her own tricks up her sleeve.

My thoughts: We first meet Stan as he’s dragging an unidentified body into a hole in the floor of a dilapidated cottage. In the next few minutes, he sets the house on fire, then walks out of the frame as the house burns alone on the prairie. The scene is viscerally beautiful, but tonally ominous. It’s the type of opening scene that would be at home in a quietly menacing Denis Villeneuve film, but not the type of opening I’m used to seeing from a director who usually lures viewers into the movie with entrancing glimpses of the supernatural.

Nightmare Alley is an adaptation of a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Del Toro’s film adaptation isn’t the first: 20th Century Fox originally adapted the book into a film noir in 1947, and while the 2021 version dives whole-heartedly into the lush 1940s noir aesthetic, according to del Toro, his version is a standalone adaptation based solely off the original novel. I haven’t read Gresham’s novel, so I can’t tell how faithful del Toro’s film is to the source material, but the film itself suffers from a crippling atmosphere of darkness.

Our protagonist is Stan, a man who makes his first on-camera appearance while disposing of a corpse. While at first the audience is primed to sympathize with Stan, his lack of empathy for others, and his clear desperation for success, makes him difficult to like. In the first twenty minutes, he helps Clem the carnival owner capture the show’s geek after he attempts to escape, showing no sympathy for a man who is forced to live in inhumane and brutal conditions. Even as Stan woos the innocent Molly off her feet, his charming veneer barely obscures his inner demons. Bradley Cooper does a fantastic job of selling Stan as man with a golden heart on his sleeve, and a rotten one in his chest, though I do wonder how Leonardo DiCaprio, who was originally cast in the role, would have fared in his place.

Guillermo Del Toro Fire GIF by Searchlight Pictures
Toni Collette as Zeena

As a protagonist, Stan is in a tricky spot. He harms too many people to be a hero, but isn’t sympathetic enough to be an anti-hero. There are sparks of warmth to be found: characters like Pete and Molly who attempt to steer Stan in the right direction, but Stan is too far gone for them to reach. He’s a realistic portrayal of a person whose loveless childhood has left them constantly searching for an impossible sort of fulfillment, and a person whose moral compass has been so skewed from a lifetime of cruelty that they view harming others as a necessary step towards self-advancement. The screenplay does an excellent job of laying out Stan’s motivations and hinting at his backstory, but his rich characterization seems to come at the expense of everyone else’s.

The film’s primary female characters, Zeena, Molly, and Dr. Lilith Ritter, are surprisingly under-developed for a del Toro film. Zeena acts a vessel for Stan’s charms, while Molly serves as the movie’s main voice of morality, but both of them are mostly empty slates for Stan to project off of. Dr. Lilith Ritter, slinky and sexy in a way that only Cate Blanchett can pull off, is the most enigmatic character of the three, but even though she has some of the movie’s best lines, and steals every scene with her icy femme fatale energy, her motivations are underbaked, leaving her arc to deflate like a popped balloon. Ultimately, Nightmare Alley is Stan’s movie to carry, but the rise and fall of a manipulative, violent, and greedy con man with few positive characteristics doesn’t make for the most compelling of stories.

Whether it’s the fault of the original novel or a lack of editing in the screenplay, the plot drags in places, making the movie feel much longer than its already bloated 2.5 hour runtime. The essence of the movie is Stan’s rise from carnival hand to famed mentalist, but the journey feels meandering, and the payoff at the end of the film, while well earned, is telegraphed from the first third of the film. Nightmare Alley could have benefitted from a strong hand paring away at the non-essentials, because while the movie’s atmosphere is gorgeous, del Toro’s decision to showcase the bizarre world of 1940s carnival life distracts from the plot. The movie seems to be going in several directions in the first half of the film, but it never ends up in one place. It may be very Screenwriting 101 to talk about a character needing to have a clear “want,” but it’s true that a movie suffers when the protagonist’s motivations seem too small, or too ill defined. The stakes are incredibly high in this film, but they never feel earned. At the end, the viewer is left with a feeling of “so what?” which is never a good tone to end on.

That’s not to say that Nightmare Alley is totally disappointing, because even with an unfocused plot, a Guillermo del Toro movie is still absolutely worth watching. His eye for the freaky and fantastic, and his love for oddities (like babies in glass jars! A recurring theme!) make Nightmare Alley a feast for the eyes. The 1940s noir set pieces, from a snow-covered mansion, to gaslit alleyways, show that del Toro can dive into any genre that he chooses and deliver a movie with panache. Additionally, the acting is top notch, though I wouldn’t expect anything less from a cast of A-listers. What makes Nightmare Alley ultimately fall short is not its lack of glittering visuals, nor a dearth of enthralling performances, but a lack of heart. Del Toro’s films always revel in the most gruesome and evil aspects of humanities, with his villains numbering amongst some of the vilest characters in film, but amidst all that muck, there is always a vibrant flame fighting against the darkness. There is no flame in Nightmare Alley, no warmth at all. It’s true to form for a film noir, but a depressing departure for a Guillermo del Toro film, and perhaps the first of his movies that I won’t watch twice.

Bradley Cooper GIF by Searchlight Pictures
Bradley Cooper as Stan

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