“I’ll meet you on the other side.”
In context with the above quote, and aligned with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s general approach to the nuances of noir that I’ve seen and read in interviews, Nightmare Alley is quite aptly named, and is an exploration of the American Dream gone topsy turvy. It’s no wonder that a full meal can become sickeningly empty when the dining cloth is pulled from the table, and it shows how quickly a stoic can descend into disillusion when the charade is over and free will is completely surrendered over to the powers of the subconscious. Nightmare Alley is the visionary director’s best work in years, and is one of the most thoughtfully rendered remakes and adaptations I’ve seen of late. It’s a masterclass in storytelling and world building. To call its final sequence haunting is an understatement.
From the very first frame, del Toro sets the hook, and the stunning visual bait is more than enough to make each and every one of our insatiable appetites bite. We see a man who we come to know as Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), dragging a corpse along the floor. He buries it beneath the boards, lights the house aflame (I wouldn’t dare call this a home), and takes the time to really relax in his destruction before setting off for something new. He seems to find comfort in the beauty of the breakdown. Stanton is a bit of a sociopath, and del Toro alludes to this by emphasizing actions over dialogue; after all, a whopping 11 minutes pass before we hear him finally speak. Nightmare Alley expertly shows first and tells later, and what a mesmerizing journey it is to follow as Stanton stumbles upon a place where he can be whoever he wants to be. Carnivals are magical in that way.
Stanton Carlisle is a mystery, a vagabond, an empty vessel willing to be a sponge for his own gain and profit. He’s a thrifty grifter who seemingly came from nothing, appeared out of nowhere, and has an insatiable thirst to drink up everything and anything. He’s a leach who sucks the life out of suckers. But he’s charming and fresh faced, and seems to have the capacity to honestly care about others; specifically the naïve Molly (Rooney Mara), whose routine he molds, and the two develop a rapport that digs into deeper psychological issues. There are many sides to Stanton though, and we see the variations and the shading with the different love interests he encounters in this freighthopping film. He’s inquisitive with Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), married to the listless drunk Pete (David Strathairn) whose act Stanton steals. He’s nefarious with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who encourages his decline into the decrepit caused by unchecked ambition. His grandiose ambitions are inwardly formed but outwardly shaped. He’s as much a product of circumstance as he is destiny.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Bradley Cooper better than he is here, essentially playing three iterations of one man, and that he does it so convincingly should’ve been worthy of yet another Oscar nomination in an otherwise weak field. He’s a wannabe baron, a brute, and a drunkard in the span of two hours, and his range knows no limits. He clearly empathizes with the weaknesses his character exudes and carries on his shoulders like a bag of bricks, and it makes his presence pop in ways too few actors are capable of. Cooper is more than an actor; he’s a filmmaker, and del Toro highlights it in every scene. Their collaboration is the combination I wanted but never knew I was craving. What they accomplish in the final shot is simply iconic.
Unlike the 1947 version of the film, which was forced to end on a more uplifting beat because of frustrated studio heads, del Toro’s reimagining of Nightmare Alley goes deeper and darker, investigating the mythos of the American Dream through seedy characters and their many Machiavellian misdeeds. It’s full of omnipotent symbolism, fills every frame with as much life as the people doing the acting on screen, and understands the perils of addictive behavior better than most films in modern memory. This is the work of a filmmaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and art who’s in complete control of his craft, with a bona fide superstar at the center leading the charge. What a marvelous, miserable journey through Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. The id of the beast is there, as is the super-ego of the intelligent man. Nightmare Alley shows what can go wrong when the ego isn’t there to keep either side in check.
“Is he man or beast?”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5