When trailers for movies start to prefix the word ‘visionary’ in front of ‘director’ this is a sign, and not always a good one.
Frequently it means that said director has one, maybe two, cinematically distinctive movies that you will know, yet likely several flops they hope you won’t.
Guillermo del Toro (Cabinet of Curiosities) has certainly helmed some duds (Pacific Rim is ‘distinctive’, yes, but few would call it ‘good’) but has been on a stunning run of form of late.
Fresh from his Best Picture Oscar win for pretty piscine infatuation (The Shape of Water), Nightmare Alley sees del Toro stamp his ‘visionary directorship’ onto a dripping neo-noir tale, and he does so with an enviable indelible craftmanship.
What Is Nightmare Alley About?
Based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham (previously adapted for the screen in 1947), Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) as Stanton Carlisle, a man at first desperate to melt away into the anonymity of a travelling carnival for reasons unclear.
Nightmare Alley marks a trifecta intersecting classic noir morality tale, del Torro’s striking visuals (frequent cinematographer Dan Laustsen returns for this film), and a cast delivering top form performances, delivered across three distinct acts: carnival redemption, self-made folly, and hubris fall.
Is there anything quite as narratively satisfying as watching a rise and fall? With nothing but the shirt on his back, at first Cooper’s Carlisle cuts a morose and withdrawn figure, barely speaking a word of dialogue for the first 20 minutes.
After catching the eye of the guttural and mercurial ringmaster (Willem Defoe) he is given the chance to earn honest coin for (mostly) honest work. At least, until he develops a fascination for Zeena and Pete’s mind-reading subterfuge act (Toni Collette and David Strathairn). After all, Cooper’s Carlisle is sharp, and can read people quick.
Much like Crimson Peak, Del Toro delights in strikingly grotesque shots, which the carnival setting provides in abundance.
Whether through highly ornate devilish sets or the pitiful sight of a freakshow attraction named ‘the Geek’, the scene is set for Carlisle to rise out of twisted but honest hoodwinkery into more respectable circles, seducing electrifying carnie Molly (Rooney Mara) into joining him as his assistant.
Nightmare Alley Official Trailer
Is Nightmare Alley Worth Watching?
Nightmare Alley builds up tension the more it threatens Carlisle’s security.
After an ugly switch from charisma to abuse when challenged during an upmarket show, he slyly works to turn his humiliation of psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, a pure noir femme fatale if ever there was one) to his advantage.
After all, she has recorded the secrets of the rich and powerful: information Carlisle can work into personal commissions. You can only gnaw your fist as Carlisle’s arrogance blinds him to the very dangerous nature of the people he seeks to scam.
Del Toro ensures that the screen is a lush experience whether this be in the trappings of high-end hotel luxury or a mist drenched graveyard.
Evoking a high definition reworking of classic Hollywood soundstages, Del Toro’s gothic sensibilities mesh deliriously well with such material as Nightmare Alley.
He also doesn’t shy away from ensuring that Carlisle is the master of his own agency, complete with all the self-made ups and self-destructive downs.
Early on, Carlisle takes pity on the rabid ‘Geek’, a caged man left to rip apart live chickens with his teeth as Defoe spins a yarn about ‘is he man or beast’ to the punters (whilst later describing in agonising precision how such a man is kept trapped by a combination of desperation and drugs).
How could a man sink so low, Carlisle ponders? Nightmare Alley pulls you, willing or not, into the dark backstreet to find out.
Words by Mike Record
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