The existence of the American dream implies the existence of the American nightmare. Call it a shadow or a doppelgänger; behind every American success story, the dark twin lurks, waiting for a tilt. The dreamer’s dream might twist into a nightmare slowly or all at once, but it’ll twist all the same. It always does.
Pick your favorite film noir. I guarantee this thesis will apply. Out of the Past, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice. These and so many others feature protagonists (usually men, usually American) who reach too far, like Tantalus grasping for his forbidden fruit. The temptation to have more, to win more, to be more is their downfall. They believe they can get one over on the American dream. They are always wrong.
It is an easy mistake to call Guillermo del Toro a horror director. Disappointment tends to follow his films because of this misconception. Misled by simplistic marketing, audiences expect horror movies from del Toro, when the secret to his massive talent really lies with his ability to infuse horror into other genres. Pacific Rim may be a giant monster fight, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water fairy tales, and Crimson Peak a gothic romance, but all of them contain emotional and literal horrors that serve to heighten the hallmarks of their modes of storytelling. And in Nightmare Alley, del Toro has once again delivered what he’s the very best at — this time in a horrible noir, a noir of horror, on such a grand scale that it must be seen to be fully appreciated.
Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), del Toro’s protagonist in the 1940s-set Nightmare Alley, is no exception to the rule of the American Tantalus. Immediately, in an opening sequence accentuated hauntingly by a career-best score from Nathan Johnson, Stan is introduced in a hell of his own making. He’s not a good man and he leaves a body behind to prove it. A twist of fate halts Stan’s exodus from whatever life he previously lived and hurls him into a new one that cares as little about his past as it does his future. All the carny life cares about is how many people you can fool to make it to tomorrow’s show — and Stan is very good at fooling people. Very, very good.
As Stan easily slides into life amongst a traveling carnival, del Toro basks in depicting the many paradoxes within this way of life. Visually, with sumptuous photography from Dan Laustsen, the colors of the tents and fantastical murals are bright but muted, thanks to an ever-present thunderstorm looming on the horizon. Thematically, the carnival offers a tailor-made setting for del Toro’s pet obsession, the question he comes back to time and time again: Who is the monster, and who is the man? Stan is certainly a focal point of this question as more of his character is revealed, but nowhere is it more obvious than in Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe), the owner of the carnival. On the one hand, Clem provides work and shelter for a group of outcasts who would be otherwise deemed too freakish for polite society; on the other, he viciously exploits his workers and shows absolutely no remorse for it. Consider here the Geek.
A geek in carnival terms is not a kid in glasses who loves Star Trek too much. A geek is a man kept in a cage, treated like an animal and made to perform bloody, bestial acts on command for 25 cents a head. There is no one lower than a geek, no one less like a man. They’re ostensibly against the law, but the shadier carnivals such as Clem’s keep them around anyway just for the draw. Stan’s morbid fascination with Clem’s Geek leads him to treat the man with kindness on the sly while also openly, incredulously asking Clem how you could ever manage to get a guy to be a geek. Clem explains the geek game the same way you might recite a recipe after someone compliments your cooking: rotefully but still with pride. It’s a triumph of human manipulation. Nothing could ever be less human.
A man with nothing but ghosts in his past could be content with the carny life, learning the mentalist trade from veteran performers Zeena and Pete Krumhein (Toni Collette and David Straithairn) and cautiously courting gentle Molly the electric girl (Rooney Mara), despite protests from her guardian Bruno, the strongman (Ron Perlman). But Stan is not really learning, he’s not really gentle and he is definitely not content. In his friends and lovers at the carnival, he sees only tools to make it big and he uses all the tools in his arsenal (held sinisterly in reserve by Cooper until the right moment) to get what he wants from them. He also, of course, ignores all the warnings that come his way. Men like him always do.
And men like Stan — men who think they’re smarter than everyone else around them just because they’ve survived this long, who get a case of shut-eye (the mentalist term for believing your own hype) — are easy prey for women like Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett).
Is that not a name that sends shivers down your spine? Dr. Lilith Ritter, consulting psychologist. It’s with Blanchett’s entrance that I stop talking about the movie and start waxing poetic about this most fatale of femmes. Blanchett is never better than when she dials seductive villainy up to 11, and she’s the very best here as a psychologist whose ethical sensibilities and methods of therapy rank right up there with those of Hannibal Lecter (the Mads Mikkelsen version, minus the cannibalism).
From the moment she slithers into Stan’s orbit, there is no question which of the two of them is going to come out on top — and I won’t deny that there is also a perverse pleasure in watching Stan orchestrate his own downfall by playing unsuspectingly into her perfectly manicured hands. Men like him always underestimate women like her. Even before he met her, though, he was well on his way to his own nightmare. With a whisper here and possibly the most devastating insult of all time there, Dr. Lilith Ritter merely accelerates his descent — and gets what she wants in the process. A femme fatale for the ages.
Already brought brilliantly to the screen once in 1947 (though marred by a studio-mandated happy ending – thankfully, you won’t find that here), Nightmare Alley could only have been resurrected successfully in 2021 by a visionary such as Guillermo del Toro. No one blends genre or brings his love of stories and films that came before quite like him. No one melds beauty with darkness or monsters with men quite like him. This review barely scratches the surface of everything del Toro has to give in Nightmare Alley. If you revel in the tilt from dream to nightmare as del Toro does, then this is surely a movie for you.