Nightmare Alley Rallies

By: Hopster
January 06, 2022

nightmare alley 2 Nightmare Alley [2021]


Guillermo del Toro has casually resided and cozied into the darkest nooks and crannies of my susceptibly troubled mind rent-free for years under the following monikers:

  • Singularly talented, visionary, Oscar-winning director and craftsman
  • Freaky, gothic necromancer of disturbing, but fantastical, cinematic bewilderment

While del Toro is without a doubt one freaky dude, -- in all the best ways, mind you -- it is crucial to re-emphasize the former point that he is freakishly talented. Our dude is built different and aims for a level of authorship and artisanship few filmmakers are brave and bold enough to strive for. Until his final cut, everything he works on should be considered a mandatory viewing as far as I'm concerned.

His latest neo-noir film, Nightmare Alley (an adaptation of the 1946 novel of the same name that also was adapted to film in 1947), fittingly follows in the footsteps of his previous work in terms of aesthetic and execution; what's different this time around is del Toro's overarching thesis statement, one that hedges on his contemplative but venomous rendering of a 'cautionary tale meets monster movie.' Naturally, like in many of his films, the monsters on screen aren't really monsters -- they're humans (specifically men). What some may critcize as excessive, heavy-handed, or self-indulgent, I found to be a towering and worthy next step in del Toro's catalogue. Nightmare Alley may be as challenging thematically as it is long in its runtime, but the returns here are substantial, albeit brutal.


A drifter named Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) stumbles into a traveling sideshow after suspiciously but intentionally burning down his home. He is enlisted for work by Clem (Willem Dafoe), the unscrupulous carnival owner, and begins to assist and assimilate into the carny lifestyle where he observes the disturbing reality wherein some of the performers exist. One such encounter serves to presage the world Stan is about to enter into (the carnival's geek, an exploited outcast performing as a 'freak' is conditioned to live in a cage and is forced to bite off the heads of live chickens for the audience's entertainment). During his time with the carnival, Stan befriends and begins to work with "Madame Zeena," the clairvoyant (Toni Collette), and her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), who is an accomplished mentalist. The couple's instruction helps Stan learn the intricate coded language system used in their "psychic" act used to wow the crowd; they warn Stan to not use these skills to lead on patrons about the dead -- 'performing any kind of "spook show" will only get people hurt,' they forewarn.

After Pete's mysterious death fomr drinking wood alcohol as opposed to moonshine (perhaps at Stan's behest), Stan quickly convinces another performer he is falling in love with, Molly (Rooney Mara) to leave with him to pursue their own two-person act away from the carnival. Stan and Molly use Zeena and Pete's technique to create a successful new show called "The Great Stanton" in New York; in one such performance, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist, attempts but falls short in exposing Stan and Molly's system. Shortly thereafter, Stan and Ritter begin having an affair, and Ritter exchanges private information about Judge Kimball to conspire and aid Stan in a "spook show" about the judge's deceased son; in turn, Stan participates in therapy sessions with Ritter, where he confesses his guilt and culpability in Pete's death. He also reveals his hatred for his alcoholic father, whom he murdered when burning down his home before joining the traveling carnival. After Kimball introduces Stan to the despicable Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), Stan begins planning how to deploy his skills for an even riskier attempt at a "spook show" in order to manipulate and con Grindle -- despite Ritter's warnings, Molly's dismay, and the (re?)start to his alcoholism...

For the sake of your potential intrigue, I'm going to stop synopsising there and let the rest of the the third act remain unmentioned. While it may be that some revelations of the latter half of this film may not exactly blindside you (narratively-speaking), the meticulous manner in which del Toro orchestrates the climax and fallout of this story make it well worth your time. Even though I've already sung his praises in this write-up, del Toro is deserving of another round of applause -- his virtuosity as an auteur is what really elevates the material. This piece of atmospheric filmmaking could have only been made by one person, and I'm in awe of his consistent precision and knack for one lavish visual after another. Of course, the craft across the board is top-notch: GDT-frequent-collaborator Dan Lausten's luscious but gloomy photography, Nathan Johnson's haunting score, and Tamara Deverell's extravagant production design are all deserving of high praise (Deverell in particular has to be an awards contender). I cannot fail to mention the performances from this A-list ensemble -- everyone involved brought their best stuff (Collette, Mara, Dafoe, Jenkins, Strathairn, etc. -- just to name a few). And there's the femme fatale who expertly delivers the shot of adrenaline neeeded to propel the second-half of the film) in Blanchett; she's never not excellent, but even this feels like another peak for her. With all due respect to everyone involved, there were times where she completely dominated the screen.

nightmare alley 3 Nightmare Alley [2021]

Which brings us to the film's headliner. "Is he a man or beast?" -- this is probably the question that pulled in Bradley Cooper to tackle this dark, shadowy material and star in this movie. Stan's sprawling character arc, from ambitious-but-debonair carny to greedy-and-privileged con man (only in a del Toro movie would this description properly fit the vibe), had to read as irresistible catnip on the page for Cooper. He's just as believable at the beginning of the movie as he is at the end -- and that's saying something considering what he pulls off in the film's haunting final moments. His fervency for challenging himself to deliver nuanced performances in demanding parts is no less admirable than his whole-hearted commitment to completely transforming before our eyes. But it doesn't stop there. Like del Toro, Cooper clearly has a passion for paying homage to Hollywood classicalism (looking @ you, A Star Is Born); he's also committed to playing against type in an effort to deconstruct the stereotypes associated with being the prototypical 'leading man.' If it were another actor, this all might come off as hollow, but because Cooper's so earnestly earnest, I'm currently buying whatever it is he's selling, even if it is a tinge masochistic and prententious. All that said, he works really hard and it pays off.

I'm not sure if there will be much of an appetite for Nightmare Alley in the coming weeks on the awards circuit. It might be too long, too dark, and just too much in general for a large swath of audiences and voters alike to rally behind. Let me remind you though that del Toro's last project, The Shape of Water, was nominated for 13 Academy Awards; it won in four categories -- Best Production Design, Best Score, Best Director, and Best Picture; it became only the second fantasy film to ever win Best Picture (after The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King); and overall, it recevied mass critical acclaim, countless accolades, and sported impressive box office returns. Simply put, it was a big hit, and that movie featured a woman having sex with a fish-man à la Creature from the Black Lagoon. Point being -- del Toro has cache and credibility. And while maybe Nightmare Alley doesn't work as well or just flat out isn't as good, I wouldn't completely rule it out of the mix considering the star power and the illustrious director with a reputation for mastery.

Where The Shape of Water conveyed a semisweet and possibly optimistic resonance, Nightmare Alley is an acid-and-sepia-dipped cautionary tale tracking the sort of toxicity inherent in overly-ambitious and misogynistic men of privilege. Del Toro's monster cons his way up the fickle ladder of fortune with a complete disregard for those around him. At its best, this is glossy pulp with a bitter aftertaste that lingers long after the credits roll.

When humans are this monstrous, who needs actual monsters?


The key to this pairing was in trying to match the dark, eclectic, and slightly bitter flavoring of a Guillermo del Toro flick with that of a delicious beer. And in discovering this from @lakeviewtaproom -- I knew immediately I found a perfect liquid complement. When pouring into a glass, I was astonished by the dark body and perfectly foamy head. Its flavor profile, an assorted mix of chocolate, coffee, vanilla, were a more than welcome alchemy. I was taken back by the fruity undertones left on my tongue after my first big gulp, specifically the cranberry and maybe a hint of cherry?! Overall, it was bold but well-balanced. Like I said, an excellent match to Nightmare Alley.

Vanilla Big Hugs
Stout - American Imperial | 10.0%
Half Acre Beer Company

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