By Natasha Porter
Sinister and tragic, Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is a chilling tale that leaves its audience both thrilled and deeply uncomfortable. Based on Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film, and William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name, “Nightmare Alley” follows the rise and fall of the con man and carnival worker Stanton “Stan” Carlisle. Unlike the 1947 film, Del Toro is able to fully display the grittier aspects of the plot – adultery, violence, gore – in a more detailed way, making this adaptation more true to the original book.
We first meet Stan (Bradley Cooper) in 1939, dragging a corpse in an abandoned house before discarding the body and setting the house alight. Stan then finds work at a travelling carnival, and quickly becomes enthralled with mentalist duo Zeena (Toni Collete) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). Stan’s fascination with mentalism concerns Pete, who warns him not to use his impressive observation skills to perform a “spook show” – convincing others that he has a connection with dead loved ones. “It ain’t hope if it’s a lie”, he warns, but Stan is convinced he knows otherwise and leaves the carnival with lover Molly (Rooney Mara) to start their own mentalist duo. While the couple are excited for their new life together, there is an impending sense of doom as they leave the carnival and this carries throughout the next act.
Two years later, Stan and Molly are performing at sold out shows in Buffalo, enchanting high society with their clairvoyant talents. During a performance, they meet icy psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who is probably the most intriguing character in the film. Stan and Lilith concoct a plan to fool the wealthy residents of Buffalo with a “spook show,” leading to a disastrous chain of events.
There are several recurring themes throughout the film – the search for control in a bleak world, and the corrupting nature of power and money. Addicted to the thrill of playing God, Stan is caught in a web of lies of his own creation and is too arrogant to recognise the disaster he is in.
At 2 hours and 30 minutes, the film is well-paced and eerie, meticulously tracking antihero Stan’s spiralling downfall. The final act and ending are shocking and darkly horrific, in true neo-noir fashion. Despite the haunting final scene, the film is satisfying, in a sick way. Stan’s fate was inescapable, and his ending was just as bleak as the society he intended to outsmart.
“Nightmare Alley” is a film about manipulation and how a life of lies corrupts the soul. As Stan foolishly blurs reality and lies, he becomes unable to see the real threat staring him straight in the face. “Nightmare Alley” fits perfectly in the neo-noir genre with its final message – the world is grim and we cannot escape our fate.
Hi, I’m Natasha! I’m from London and I’m a MSc History of International Relations student. I like to write about music and film. I also enjoy pretending to be a cultural critic by over-analysing reality TV. You can find me on instagram @stopnatasha and by email N.L.Porter@lse.ac.uk