Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is a truly stunning film imbued with rage and discontent

Guillermo Del Toro uses the past to reflect on the current moment through extravagance and poetry.

Guillermo Del Toro’s latest, Nightmare Alley, simmers with rage. Fire engulfs the opening scene, and the characters are locked in an eternal battle between chance and destiny. The film adapts a novel by William Lindsay Gresham about a carny who makes his fortune with a mentalist show. Stan (Bradley Cooper) has an unshakable ambition that overrides good sense and good morals. 

Previously made into a film in 1947 (currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel), this film maintains the 1930s and 1940s setting. The golden ember look calcifies the period, and the costuming and production design further transports us to a different time. Del Toro, a master of monsters and fantasy, refuses a naturalist interpretation of events. Instead, everything is grand and mystical, imbued with hidden meaning and a dark underbelly. It’s a world forged from cinema, with passing references to movies like The Unknown, The Blue Angel and Dark Passage, among others. He embraces the aesthetics of artifice to create a heightened reality where coincidences and fate play an integral role in shaping destiny. 

Del Toro’s aesthetic approach allows the more classical rise and fall narrative to hook an audience conditioned by realism as a storytelling device. The first 10 minutes of this film lay the groundwork for where things are going; everything is predestined. Characters are locked onto their worldview to the point of obsession. Even if they’re given every opportunity to turn onto a new path, instinctively, we know they won’t stray from their doomed course. 

The rage that embodies this film sets it apart from the 1947 version. Though set in the past, the movie feels like a precise reflection of the current historical moment. The intersection of greed and hustling is a dark contemplation on a nation that has lost its way. Its most prominent characters are motivated by money, certainly, but more importantly, they want to win. Stan sees the vulnerabilities of others as a weakness to be exploited. Unlike them, he sees himself as a winner. 

About halfway through the film, Stan meets his match, the beautiful and cold Lilith (Cate Blanchett). She’s a slinking and perceptive psychiatrist who is skeptical about his act. In each other, they recognize a kinship, but they also remain so different. Lilith embodies the very classical role of the femme fatale, the woman who will bring doom upon our protagonist. In the angry context of this film, it’s difficult to harbour any resentment against her, though: to a certain extent, Stan will get what he deserves. Yet Lilith feels so much like the key to understanding this film. Her motivations are far more inscrutable than his. 

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley
Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper

Del Toro co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Morgan, a critic and writer (she collaborated on Guy Maddin’s Forbidden Room and Seances). In 2015, Morgan wrote an article In Defense of the Femme Fatale. In it, she writes about the femme fatale, “She’s “discontent. Not evil. Not a dastardly double-crosser. Not greedy. Not a bitch. Not a conniver. Discontent.” The enigmatic nature of Lilith lies in this interpretation of the character-type because the femme fatale’s modus operandi is reactive rather than active. She’s not motivated in service of a need; she’s reacting against a series of systems and values. She’s been burned before, so now she turns her understanding of those systems and values against itself. She doesn’t want material objects as much as she wants to destroy everyone and everything that has interfered with her happiness and boxed her into a role she doesn’t like.

This rage or discontent runs through the whole film. The modern changes to the screenplay skew the film towards this simmering anger that is far less present in previous text interpretations. The film articulates the toxic element at the heart of the American dream: that you will necessarily have to exploit and harm others to succeed. Wealth and power provide you with a different justice and value system. The fish rots from the head down. It exposes that this system’s material measurements of success are inherently cruel and self-serving. 

The film works so beautifully mainly because of the cast, who find poetry and nuance in the archetypes they embody. Bradley Cooper continues to emerge as one of the most compelling leading men of our time, ultimately selling the sliminess of Stan without losing audience sympathies. Blanchett could not be more perfect for Lilith, and a supporting cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Toni Colette, David Strathairn and Richard Jenkins makes for a rich experience. It’s a film of extravagant character types: good girls and fortune-tellers, monsters and opportunists. Everyone plays their role beautifully.

Nightmare Alley may very well be one of the best films of the year. It captures the brooding sentiment of our current moment through extravagance and poetry. Del Toro’s attentive filmmaking embraces detail and symbolism with such keen attentiveness, bolstered by a beautiful score and sound design. It’s a truly stunning film to be visited and revisited again and again. 

Nightmare Alley opens in Montreal theatres on Wednesday, Dec. 15.

Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, starring Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper

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