America. Before the War. A man walks away from a burning house in an empty field after lighting the fire himself, and gets a job at a carnival. It’s our bleak yet well-crafted introduction to the world of Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, a meticulously crafted masterpiece that doesn’t feel a second of its 150-minute length – a movie that is so misrepresented by its trailers it’s like regardless of what you’ve seen or heard you’re going to go in blind. It’s a rags-to-riches tale. A con movie. A rise and fall. A gothic horror, a tribute to those that don’t fit in society’s norms. Nightmare Alley is all of these – and more, with Del Toro putting his heart and soul into the production to weave one of his most accomplished films to date – following on from the back of Oscar winner The Shape of Water in 2017, that is every bit worthy of that crown.
Our gateway into this world comes from the smooth-talking Stanton Carlisle, who has ambitions greater than the carnival that he winds up with, played by Bradley Cooper. Willem Dafoe’s Clem Hoately takes him under his wing as he learns the trade, but Stanton, with a talent for manipulation and second-guessing people under pressure, quickly outgrows the safe confines of the carnival itself. He eventually plots, aspires – and dreams bigger than his reach, and comes into contact with a female psychiatrist, Cate Blanchett’s Dr. Lilith Ritter – who may be more than Stanton expects. It’s a fascinating dynamic – Cooper’s performance may well be the best of his career to date, a deceptively charming character who always gets what he wants. He uses words like “never” and emphasises how proud he is of not drinking – and quickly builds a façade that few see through. It’s a testament to Cooper’s performance that you believe every second of Stanton, he never feels larger than life, a deeply tragic figure with his own dark past that makes much of the film watchable.
Del Toro has been no stranger to telling stories where men are the real monsters: it’s the director’s calling card. The Shape of Water brought it to screen in an ultimately doomed romance, and doomed dreams are very much front and centre of Nightmare Alley. DOP Dan Lausten – a Del Toro regular with experience on The Shape of Water and Crimson Peak, lends his hand to a movie where nothing is ever static, the film is always moving, and vivid imagery bleeds through the screen. Simple shots that focus on characters walking through a carnival attraction are created with impeccable attention to detail –production designer Tamara Deverell lends a guiding hand, and nine set decorators make sure that this movie is bursting full of energy. Every scene feels lived in – every location, from the dregs of the metropolitan train station toilets, to the carnival itself and the inner-city offices that Dr. Ritter plays host to Stanton in to The Shining-style maze that haunts the final set-piece, no expense is spared to make such a world. Everything feels haunted, with the history of what happened in the locations featured in the film bleeding through to the present.
Those expecting a horror film will probably find themselves disappointed as the film borrows from the 1946 pulp novel of the same title by William Lindsay Gresham, meaning that Nightmare Alley is very much not that – it’s a seductively chilling take that will lure you in under a false pretence, like its lead character – tricking you into believing that it’s something that it’s not. It’s a crime story, a film of ego and ambition. It is a tale where men are the monsters – and the monsters are men. The film follows a clear two act structure – separated with a two-year time difference, and the result is a rich recreation of the film noir palette. Don’t be put off by its lengthy running time – there’s enough material in here to keep you hooked. Far from being bland and derivative, it’s a world that feels completely rich and alive – putting a spotlight on the tricksters and con-artists of the world for all to see.