Amid a maze of spectacle ranging from the whirring contortionist to the whimsical clairvoyant is where Guillermo del Toro sets his pawn in his vision of the 1946 novel Nightmare Alley. A master of the strange and peculiar, del Toro skillfully marries elements of the fantastic with the historically informed noir in one of his best films to date.
Co-written with Kim Morgan, the adaptation shines the limelight on a cast of characters in the backcountry circus business joined by the troubled and mysterious Stan (Bradley Cooper). From the very first shot — that of Stan dragging a body to be burned down along with his childhome home — the narrative takes aim at uncovering his past.
Before much is learned, Stan joins the traveling circus to help with odd jobs here and there. The first of the acts he assists is that of “The Geek,” introduced by a cunning Willem Dafoe as neither man nor animal, a shell of a being wrestled into the show by the pull of his own wretched conscience. Perhaps too difficult to contend with, Stan moves on to take any carnie intellectual property that might guide him toward what is slowly revealed to be his goal for a brighter future in show business.
In an attempt to dispel the mystery around his character, del Toro introduces Stan to a husband and wife team (played by Toni Collette and David Strathairn) boasting powers of prophecy and connection to distant realms. The husband, Pete, is an affectionate alcoholic, troubled by the power and ego of his old mentalist act that nearly destroyed him. Stan picks up the cues and codes that Pete used to engage audiences, and with fellow carnie and love interest Molly (Rooney Mara) in tow, sets off from the muddy fairgrounds to hotel ballrooms with their new dual act. Left behind in a haste are some of the film’s strongest characters, enjoined by the motif of circles, mirrors, and foreboding that come to light once Stan’s life warrants another fresh start.
Stan and Molly dazzle the cities with their charm and intuition, surmounting doubt as psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) decides to confront the seer for who she thinks he is. Moving from one opportunity to the next, Stan sees in Lilith a treasure trove of information bound to unlock the wallets of the wealthy willing to spend whatever it takes to hear from him about their lost loved ones. Stan wants confidential details on Dr. Ritter’s clients to be used for his act. In return, Lilith simply wants the truth… or something more?
Around an hour into the film we bear witness to the power struggle endowed by Judeo-Christian folklore and highlighted by del Toro’s production design. Lilith, as a means of self-preservation and wielding power, keeps every element of her work hidden behind closed doors, locks and safes. Stan, only interested in what he can and what he believes to see, misses her furtiveness, despite the bright red shade of betrayal painting her lips every time he gazes at her. In several therapeutic sessions, she gets Stan to address some of her curiosities — his aversion to alcohol, his past at the circus and his hatred for his father. Meanwhile, Stan burrows deeper into the forays of grief for his new clients, agreeing to perform more and more impossible tasks for the right price.
For all of Stan’s lust to deconstruct people and reveal to them he knows their deepest, most personal thoughts, he never comes to terms with his own motivations or traumas. At his worst, Stan is no less monstrous than the freaks and geeks the circus thrives upon for survival, and at his best, he is an unfortunate byproduct of a whirlwind path to a sickly conception of the American Dream.
Del Toro does not spare neither detail nor praise for the noir influences that bring his “Nightmare Alley” to life. At times, you are lost in the brilliance of his world-building, slowly taking on symbolism and life-lessons that become profound in the film’s final moments. I’d argue that this is a necessary evil as this adaptation is predicated on worshipping nostalgia and its earlier iterations. It is a neo-noir so complete and filling in a way that hasn’t been realized in decades. Any element of this film can reveal the depths of research and appreciation that went into its creation. It is worrisome to turn away from the masterful voice of an incomparable filmmaker because Nightmare Alley take its time to pay tribute to its influences.