Nightmare Alley


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Nightmare Alley
"From its first kindlings it draws breath from your lungs as surely and as steadily as it draws your eyes."

Here, as with West Side Story we could get involved in discussion as to what constitutes a remake. This is drawn from William Lindsay Gresham's novel of 1946 but there are significant (and signifying!) changes from it, from the 1947 adaptation with Tyrone Power. That film is not just post-War but well after the 'pre-code' era, and the freedoms afforded even under whoever owns Searchlight this week are greater than then. Detail abounds, including that of injury, featuring in the BBFC rating along with strong violence. Gresham apparently drew inspiration from conversations with a carny with whom he served as a Loyalist of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The mythologies around that conflict have informed Guillermo Del Toro's work before, but here their form is at once as strange and grounded and twisting as Pan's Labyrinth.

Noir isn't as much a colour as a tone, and Nightmare Alley is a mesmerising exploration of both of those things. It is a burning thing, so dense in its patterns that the multiplicity of spirals on a bedroom door is indicative at a fractal level. The blurry lines between the real and the kayfabe, the almost intrinsically American journey from nothing to imagination that relies upon huckster finesse and the willingness of the mark to weigh in.

I loved it. It is only in retrospect that I realise it was two and a half hours in length. From its first kindlings it draws breath from your lungs as surely and as steadily as it draws your eyes. Caught up by its wending and weaving, its steadiness, its delight. Dan Laustsen lenses for del Toro for a fourth time. After Mimic there was a hiatus but I cannot count how many colours were found. He's done a quantity of action in the between including the latter Johns Wick (2,3, forthcoming 4) and Wickalike Proud Mary. Here that variety is as a carnival. While the MCU might render its four-colour heroes in teal and orange almost by default, here they don't just highlight masks but hint at ice and fire.

Bradley Cooper is Stanton Carlisle, arriving into the world of sideshow. There is Toni Collette as Zeena the Seer, then Rooney Mara as Molly Cahill, the electric girl, and then Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter. Three fates? Three furies? Each is attended by differently powerful men - Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, Mark Povinelli, Peter MacNeill - but that is not the dance. Carlisle's passage from hinterland to interzone is one of those matching movie moments that makes me wonder if Del Toro might be the finest working director of buses.

I was minded of heist movies, the interlocking ones as clockwork accurate as horology like Heist or Nine Queens. I was minded of magical movies, that mixture of period detail and The Prestige. I was reminded of death, a skull as memento mori is one thing but its hot and wet arrival in the snow is one of many splashes of red. This could be a Christmas movie by the dates, but resists that temptation, and that despite the line "every day is Christmas". There are better stalkings to hang and larger things to unwrap.

The performances all contain subtleties, things to catch and be caught by. There are many members of Del Toro's troupe here and in circularity and circus both he makes a foreground of the fairground. From mire to spire, the dirt that gathers is of character. There is a tension in the wires, ensnaring, hypnotic.

There are moments where the light catches on something in a cage of cut glass. Prisms and prisons both, pits of despair. The greatest swindle ever pulled was suggesting you cannot con an honest man, but those details hide devils and so many hands have not been idle in the construction of this fable. Fabulous it is, a love letter to a genre. You know what a love letter is?

There are transitions that both are and feel like time travel, one of many bits of movie magic. There are references throughout that feel like nods to auteurs past and that's beyond the voluminous thanks in the credits to both directors and illusionists. Every element pulls together here. There's a stellar cast. I cannot recall being as impressed by Cooper but Blanchett, Mara and Colette all draw from him more than audiences might expect him to give. From carousel to mansion, the dead wood of ambition and the fortress mausoleum of wealth, the lurid and the limelight, Art Deco and nickel-plate, alleyways and nightmares both. It is a certain thing.

I found myself thinking of the path that Doctor Sleep followed to be an adaptation of one work and simultaneously a sequel to two. Not just because of the gifts, the whiskey, but the sense of a course boldly plotted and followed confidently. It is one thing to see the difference wrought in soles and another to walk a path to see the toll inflicted on their spiritual homonym. The differences between this Nightmare Alley and its differently guttered cousins are not trivial but they are strong. To dig into their detail in advance is to spoil their impact but know that once you know you'll know.

Del Toro adapts from Gresham's novel, though film historian/critic/screenwriter Kim Morgan is also credited. She worked on Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room which itself was in part a love letter to lost entertainments. That she's been married to both complicates things in a way that seems apt for a film where relationships matter as much.

Shadows need something to cast them and there is a sense here of fun, but a very particular kind of fun, not just Del Toro's direction but that mixture of schadenfreude and satisfaction that comes from pulling off a trick, that knife edge between revelation and recognition. The lines are often both clearly drawn and murky, and it is not just a question of enough rope but enough canvas to cover it. It whips along, electric, and even knowing where it is going I cannot wait to see it again.

Reviewed on: 20 Jan 2022
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Nightmare Alley packshot
An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who may be even more dangerous than he is.
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Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writer: Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan, based on the book by William Lindsay Gresham

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Mark Povinelli

Year: 2021

Runtime: 150 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Mexico


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