Make The Case: Nightmare Alley

By: Hopster
March 15, 2022

nightmare alley 2 Nightmare Alley [2021]

Part 4 in our "Make the Case" series leading up to the Oscars! All week we will be expostulating how and why each of the ten Best Picture nominees have a chance at winning the top prize at the 94th Academy Awards -- no matter how likely or unlikely their chances may be. Stay tuned for our Oscars Preview next week as we gear up for the ceremony on Sunday, March 27th. As always, be aware that there will be spoilers aplenty.

The Case

"Is he man or beast?" The thesis statement at the core of Guillermo del Toro's latest excursion into the darkest corners of cinema's genre-rich underbelly, Nightmare Alley, isn't a trick (though it is most definitely a treat). From the very first frame, Bradley Cooper's Stan Carlisle is shown to be a ruthless man trying to navigate within an unforgiving world. Even though he functions as the point of view character for the entirety of the film, it is immediately understood that the mysterious Carlisle is an atypical leading man. His shadowy demeanor and conniving opportunism stimulate enough intrigue to hook you in, but it would be too charitable to categorize him as anti-hero -- he is undoubtedly a monster, a callous man whose ambition poisons his humanity. Del Toro is a confident storyteller, and he isn't afraid to flash his cards early to the audience and map out the descent into damnation that Stan is about to embark on. Through deliberate worldbuilding and characterization that feels as fresh as it does archetypal, del Toro establishes a sense of place and atmosphere in Nightmare Alley that feels startingly realistic and familiar. It's a refined achievement from a cinematic savant.

nightmare alley 3 Nightmare Alley [2021]

After my first viewing of Nightmare Alley, I was convinced that it was not only a great film, but one that might gain awards momentum heading into this year's Oscars. While it certainly hasn't become a critical juggernaut like del Toro's previous film The Shape of Water was, it has slowly but surely earned its way into that rarefied cinematic arena. Though its accolades haven't exactly headlined the film guild circuit, Nightmare Alley has garnered significant recognition from BAFTAs, the Critics Choice, and maybe most importantly, Martin Scorsese (he said the film is "truer to the animating spirit of film noir than the many 'homages' that have been made over the years and are still being made now."1 It has also been nominated for four Academy Awards including:

  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Production Design
  • Best Picture

Despite the praise, Nightmare Alley currently holds the lowest odds for winning Best Picture at 14/1 (according to GoldDerby2, which is behind even Don't Look Up (which I could barely scrape together an argument for winning yesterday). Is there an outside chance that Nightmare Alley can shock the film world and take home the top prize on Oscar night? I think the answer is obviously no, but let's talk it through.

What does Nightmare Alley have going for it? Well, it's written and directed by del Toro, who is a made man by the Academy's standards. This is his third foray into serious Oscar contention -- Pan's Labyrinth was beloved by most but was shut out, and The Shape of Water was respected by most and thoroughly awarded (it secured four prizes including Best Picture and Best Director for del Toro). There are few auteurs working in film today with more esteem and stature in the industry than del Toro, so I wouldn't be surprised if this film won out on some ballots based on his track record alone.

nightmare alley 1 Nightmare Alley [2021]

The behind the scenes artisans are operating at an exceptionally high level: Dan Lausten's cinematography and Tamara Deverell's production design are both in contention for Oscars (and deservingly so); and relative newcomers Nathan Johnson and Cam McLauchlin deliver an ambient score and seamless rhythmic editing, respectively. And with, an incredible cast consisting of Cate Blanchett (who is absolutely electric), Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Straithairn, and of course, Cooper, there is no shortage of star power here either. As much as any movie in contention for Best Picture this year, Nightmare Alley is a potent alchemy of above and below the line talent.

So, will it win big at the Oscars? Most likely no. Should it win? Sure, why not! When neo-noir melodrama is this effective, this precise, and this accomplished, I have hard time saying no to it. With Nightmare Alley, del Toro manages to go up another level in the Hollywood hierarchy -- his enigmatic taste and acute eye for visual iconagraphy never ceases to impress. I'm not entirely sure that a film where a tortured Bradley Cooper guesses what's in everyone's pocket and uses it to manipulate those around him like a complete sociopath is what you might consider "Best Picture material," but maybe it should be.

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