10/10 Nightmare Alley is a macabre masterpiece of despair, cynicism and sin. It would be too simple to call this writer/director/producer Guillermo del Toro’s best work, but it is certainly his most refined and most cruel.
End of the line, 1939- Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, who also produces), freshly orphaned in the deserted, post-Depression Midwest, runs away and joins the circus. Carlisle quickly becomes versed in the drugging and con acts of traveling carnivals at that time period, pushes them to even less ethical extremes and moves to Chicago as a new solo act, “The Great Stanton.”
Nightmare Alley is a long, dark journey through and empty and doomed New World, waiting for the last few straggling souls to settle up before closing shop, a bad dream of Carlisle’s anxieties around absentee parents, alcohol and the desire to be found out. Everyone Carlisle wanders into has a secret of some kind, most of which are just a little too similar to his own secrets. It’s not quite a full nightmare, more the recurring dream of someone who knows his fears and still can’t face them.
Nightmare Alley is a masterpiece, but it is not a fun watch.
Cinematographer Dan Lausten’s floating camera keeps viewers at just the right distance, far enough away that this all seems to be happening to someone else but close enough to be caught in the crossfire. Editor Cam McLauchlin is loathe to break the scenes up, and the eerily gliding shots are also eerily long. Every cut is so pointed that they become escalators of tension in their own right.
For del Toro, Nightmare Alley is an apparent step away from many of his usual preoccupations, but only at the surface. This is partially his intention. He wanted his next movie to be a film noir exploring the seedy underbelly of his particular film worlds, which have always cast an accusatory, direct gaze at the human flaws that motivate his characters’ violence.
Magic, a hallmark of del Toro’s filmography, isn’t just absent, its absence becomes the main subject of the work. Carlisle’s cons are increasingly steeped in the supernatural, and the consequences of his deceptions are increasingly severe. There are no fawns or demonspawn here, but the theme of graphic dehumanization is alive and well and much more horrifying now that it isn’t playing against real monsters. The blurring line between fantasy and reality becomes frightening instead of fanciful when viewers can see the con man behind the curtain and the contempt with which he treats his marks.
It’s also not by intention, because Nightmare Alley isn’t entirely his film the way most others are. Cooper, who recently directed A Star is Born, reframed his ideas for the movie after replacing Leonardo DiCaprio in pre-production-
“A director is an actor and an actor is a director. There is no separation of the craft…that took awhile for me to get used to. I normally create and guide these little Fabergé eggs of movies, obsessively detailed. All of a sudden we were on an adventure. I will never shoot a movie the same way.”
The COVID-19 crisis split photography in two, with production on the 1941 segment running January to March 2020 and the 1939 segment resuming September to December, further pushing the film away from del Toro’s original vision, but del Toro made use of this as well. He had the second half of the film edited and ready to go by the time lockdown lifted and basically ended up with two cracks at making this movie.
Nightmare Alley could revolutionize del Toro’s career, but it won’t revolutionize his perception because no one’s seeing it – the joke is, if you want to go out during the omicron surge, you can isolate at any screening of Nightmare Alley. That’s no crime. This is a particularly crowded Christmas season, and Nightmare Alley isn’t the kind of movie you bring your mother to. This movie is destined to be discovered many years down the line by people dedicatedly studying del Toro’s career, and that’s really where it belongs, but it won’t be too many years down the line – it’s already raked in a boatload of critics’ awards and could make a great deal of noise at the Oscars.