Nightmare Alley: A Smashing Success

Annabel Davis   
Contributing Writer
Image courtesy of Hulu.

Guillermo del Toro’s take on the classic 1947 novel and film adaptation has been one of the best-received films of the year, garnering four Oscar nominations including one for Best Picture. With a cast as loaded as that of Nightmare Alley, how could it not be a smashing success? It features a riveting and dynamic performance by Bradley Cooper at its helm, with compelling support from Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and Toni Collette. When you combine these impressive portrayals with del Toro’s skillful screenwriting and direction, the result is a film that is utterly engrossing in a visceral and deeply disturbing way.

The film takes place in New York in the late 1930s/early 1940s and follows a man named Stanton Carlisle as he flees the home where his father died and tries to forge his own path. He finds himself joining a carnival that features acts ranging from gimmicky to grotesque, including those performed by the characters of Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, and Willem Dafoe. He quickly learns that he has a knack for deceit, and he and Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act consists of her on-stage electrocution, run off to the city to form their own mentalist duo and astound the likes of socialites and tycoons. It is in this phase of Carlisle’s career that he meets Blanchett’s Lillith Ritter, a doctor of psychology with whom he hatches a plan to get rich, and who causes his ultimate fall from grace.

No words can do justice to the unsettling quality of the film’s imagery: the grimy carnival is filled to the brim with creepy relics and striking biblical references, including a preserved three-eyed newborn named Enoch by Clem (Willem Dafoe) and fabled to have killed its mother during childbirth. It is a setting where filth and sinfulness abound, and is harshly juxtaposed by the visual sterility and elegance of Carlisle’s later career, which is filled with grand dining rooms, tuxedos, and carefully coiffed hairdos; however, it becomes gradually apparent that Carlisle’s morality only becomes more and more soiled as his deceit and greed cause increased damage to those for whom he stages seances.

The pacing of the film is somewhat slow and seems to mimic the progression of the movies from the time period in which the novel was written. The shift from Carlisle’s life at the carnival to his life as a well-known mentalist seems stark. We have skipped a few steps. The shift seems to break the film into two distinct and separate parts, which comes across rather dissonant. The change’s abruptness, though, allows us to identify the negatively correlated change in Carlisle’s morality. The film’s overall cyclical nature, too, makes Carlisle’s fate incredibly impactful — it leaves you with a lasting feeling of (not entirely unwelcome) uncleanliness as you watch Carlisle suffer the consequences of his actions.

It would not be entirely accurate to say that I liked Nightmare Alley — I was, however, moved by it, which is the mark of a great film. I was moved towards a sense of my own depravity and guilt. It poured a pile of dirt into my stomach that I am desperate to be rid of. Nightmare Alley is a must-watch film… but only if you don’t fear the unveiling of what’s behind your integrity.