Director Guillermo del Toro has an immediately recognizable style, and with the notable exception of something like The Shape of Water, he has a consistent general through-line in his films: people suck. In his latest film, Nightmare Alley, del Toro’s two trademarks are present in spades, and that’s exactly what makes it so good.
This dark neo-noir is based off William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name, and follows the initially enigmatic Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). The opening image of the film is Stan dragging a dead body into a large hole in the wooden floor of his isolated home on a hill before walking away from the burning house. Stan very obviously has a past that’s checkered at best, but he happens upon a carnival run by a man who’s enigmatic in his own right — Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe). Clem tells Stanton he’s welcome to become a carny himself because the other performers and behind-the-scenes workers “don’t make no never mind who you are or what you done.”
So this is exactly what Stan does. He buddies up with the other carnival workers, all while being sure to never reveal too much about himself, other than the fact that he has massive daddy issues, which Pete (David Strathairn), a former mentalist, is able to sneakily glean from him. From there, Stan realizes the power of mentalism, realizes he’s actually pretty good at it, and gets Pete to help him become great at it. With his newly honed skill, an extramarital fling with Pete’s wife Zeena (Toni Collette), and an accidental murder by wood alcohol, Stan takes off with Molly (Rooney Mara), one of the other performers, and they start a profitable mentalism show for the high class snobs of 1930s Buffalo, New York.
The production design of the carnival is perpetually intriguing, and the way del Toro shoots it adds to the fascination. Something constantly feels off about it all, and the reasoning is explained quite clearly in a scene between Stan and Clem, which is ultimately the film’s thematic linchpin, and in which Clem describes exactly how he lures in his “geeks,” or those people he advertises as “not quite man, not quite beast.” He preys on the broken and gives them what they think they want, all while spiking their alcohol with opium, getting them hooked. The repeated extreme wide shots of the carnival with the ferris wheel continually turning send a pointed message of the cyclical nature of life. As a viewer, you deeply become entrenched in the world of this carnival, and it’s a stark, yet effective shift once Stan and Molly leave it around the one-hour mark.
After the somewhat jarring shift, the movie’s main focus becomes absolutely clear, if it wasn’t already: it’s about grifters. Stan, from what we see, has next to no redeeming qualities. He’s a womanizer, a liar, a cheat, and again, a grifter. His run-in with wealthy psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is a monumental encounter for Stan, as it sets up the rest of his arc. They begin to work together to scam old rich people into repeated mentalism sessions where Stan “conjures the dead” and Lilith simply provides him with the information on the people thanks to her previous appointments with them.
These sessions display exactly who Stan enacts his grift on, which can be simply boiled down to everyone. As Pete told him early on, “People are desperate to be seen,” and Stan grabs that idea and never lets go, exploiting the deepest, darkest secrets of those who are trusting him with who they are. It’s a dark, dark theme that’s hammered home over and over.
Without the incredible performance by Cooper, Nightmare Alley might not have been able to withstand its 150 minute runtime, which is a bit bloated. He does such a good job at reeling you in and maintaining this air of mystery, which turns into you rooting against him, and you don’t even realize it. This very well could be his best performance alongside American Sniper and A Star Is Born.
Nightmare Alley isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but with its dark and chilling atmosphere, gripping performances, themes that you can apply perfectly to a variety of modern people and institutions, and an absolute masterpiece in itself of a final shot, I think this film is one of the best of the year.