Rating: A (Fantastic)
Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Searchlight Pictures
Throughout his career, Guillermo del Toro has often told stories about fantastical events and creatures arriving in the real world and the shift that occurs in their presence. He also shows a lot of sympathy towards the monsters in his movies, whether it’s Hellboy or the aquatic man in The Shape of Water. While Nightmare Alley retains his signature filmmaking style, it’s also a departure in many ways. The only magic seen in the film is completely fake and the results of illusionists and con artists. The lead protagonist Stan, played by Bradley Cooper, is not someone to root for and the film instead portrays someone who becomes worse as he dives deeper into his false promises of power. The film becomes a compelling film noir that shows del Toro’s continued interest in exploring various genres in different guises.
Adapting William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley can effectively be divided into two parts. The first half of the picture is set at a carnival and del Toro is able to pull the audience into the unique world and what happens when curious onlookers visit the sights. In many ways, del Toro is commenting on show business and all of the trickery and hard work involved in making sure the audience believes what’s in front of them. These are people mainly interested in putting on a good show and they’re not ashamed in how they deceive paying customers. From David Strathairn’s fake psychic to Willem Dafoe’s grizzled owner, they all play a role in portraying this unusual family.
Cooper depicts Stan as someone who might have something to hide, but does a good job of not making that obvious to the people he meets. At the start of the film, he doesn’t even seem that bad. However, as the story continues on and especially in the second half when we see him fully utilise his con artist ways, the darker layers start peeking out. Del Toro isn’t interested in sugarcoating anything about the characters we encounter. The most sympathetic is easily Stan’s wife Molly, excellently played by Rooney Mara, although even she is not completely innocent. Kim Morgan and del Toro’s screenplay especially crackles during the psychology scenes between Cooper and Cate Blanchett as one thinks they’re smarter than the other.
The film noir elements are well handled by del Toro and watching the film, it’s surprising this is his first crack at it. The atmosphere and mood of the scenes have the appropriate vibe and that’s a large credit to his direction and his understanding of how to place his characters in the scenes. Tamara Deverell’s production design further helps bring the locations to life, like the carnival and Blanchett’s office. As previously seen through The Shape of Water, del Toro and his team do a great job of bringing an otherworldly feeling to otherwise realistic locations. Completing the package is Nathan Johnson’s score, which relies heavily on piano so as to provide the final period influence.
Nightmare Alley certainly provides one of Guillermo del Toro’s darkest films and that might be because of how it portrays a man’s real attempts to con people based on their own grief. There are unfortunately actual charlatans like this in the world and that makes Stan even more despicable than he already is. This is a man who has no guilt about how he takes advantage of peoples’ vulnerabilities and the film succeeds in showing his further descent into this evil act. It’s also another example of what makes del Toro one of the most interesting and exciting filmmakers working today, with his passion for genre coming out of every frame of his movies.