Nightmare Alley gets its name from a wet and dark stretch of Chicago concrete, where the unhoused and destitute seek shelter. They are people brought low by life and kept there by addiction, ripe for exploitation. And because this is America, there are people happy to do so, if only to put on a show for others.
Based on the 1946 novel by William Leslie Graham (and previously adapted in 1947 by director Edmund Goulding and writer Jules Furthman) Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley seems at first to be a departure for one of cinema’s most celebrated lovers of monsters. Instead of a supernatural dark fairy tale akin to Oscar-winner The Shape of Water or his breakout film Pan’s Labyrinth, Nightmare Alley is straight noir, a stylish and dark work about lies and liars. And in our current theatrical moment, its slow drama is a slightly harder sell than the latest Marvel movie, but no less of a dazzling spectacle.
Like the previous two versions of the story, del Toro’s film follows Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man eager to leave a painful life behind and do grunt work for a traveling carnival, only to discover that he has a knack for the carny life. As his talent grows, Stan eventually strikes out on his own with a successful mentalism act catered toward a wealthy crowd. Through this, Stan meets femme fatale Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist who is at first skeptical of Carlisle and interested in poking holes in his act. Before long, their matching of wits results in a proposed partnership, and a dangerous scam: convincing an extraordinarily rich recluse that Stan can help him see his deceased wife again.
Nightmare Alley is absolutely sick with foreboding, a gorgeous film of greens and oranges that takes viewers from a twisted carnival to dark city streets to luxurious estates for a story where everyone, everywhere, is eager to deceive themselves — and few more than deceivers like Stan.
All three versions of Nightmare Alley begin and end in the same place: With Stan Carlisle in terrible awe of his carnival’s geek act. An awful tradition and a subject of cinematic horror stretching back to 1932’s notorious film Freaks, a geek was a freak show attraction in which a man is abused and broken until he becomes a madman in a pit willing to bite off chicken heads for a paying crowd. Each telling of Nightmare Alley shows Stan Carlisle, pitying this pathetic creature. Each one similarly ends with Stan becoming one.
Where Nightmare Alley’s horrible power lies is in the long path it takes between its beginning and ending. Stan is a quick study and a natural at crowd work, and quickly goes about building a new life in a profession where liars ply their trade. In the film’s first half, Stan is surrounded by people who lie for various reasons, the main difference being how they regard their marks. Some, like the fortune tellers Zeena and Peter Krumbein (Toni Collette and David Strathairn), see their customers compassionately, using their acts to entertain and enlighten. They adhere to a moral code of ethical deception, telling their marks uplifting things they want to hear, but not going so far as to lead them on with a false hope of being miracle workers.
There is terrible power in knowing how to lie to and manipulate a crowd, Peter warns Stan as he teaches him some of his secrets but withholds others. “People are desperate to tell you who they are,” he says, “desperate to be seen.” And few things are more dangerous than a man who tells you what you want to hear.
Most, however, don’t share those values, and see others as suckers and those with the gumption to take em for all their worth. Namely Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe), a man who has built his carnival and his livelihood on knowing how to exploit others to keep him in the black. His mantra is to find what others are afraid of, and to sell it back to them. Hence his need for a geek. In the film’s most chilling sequence, Clem tells Stan exactly how a geek is made. It starts with a drink offered to alcoholic or addict fallen on hard times, one laced with opium to get them hooked. Then it comes with an offer of work: a temporary job as the new geek, just until they find a regular one to fill the role. A little lie to make them think they will only be debasing themselves for a little while, when in truth, they’re never going to escape the geek’s cage.
As Stan, Cooper is a selfish cipher, a man who values his ability to render others transparent and himself opaque, and determined to use these skills to further his own ambition. For a story about hubris, he’s perfect — a man handsome and capable-seeming, with a long way to fall before being brought so low. The performances that drift in and out of his orbit are, by design, far more memorable: Straitharn gives a brief yet beautiful tragic performance as the closest thing to a moral center Nightmare Alley has. Dafoe is pragmatically sinister as the carney boss Clem. And Blanchett is a composed foil, fully formed and ready to meet Stan as he exits the carney life and puts on a suit to earn a penthouse suite as he deceives the urban elite.
Nightmare Alley is a careful and lavish adaptation of a seminal work where its most interesting dimensions are the ones that emerge when the viewer asks “why tell this story now?” Its script, by del Toro and Kim Morgan, is not didactic nor is it a drastic departure from previous versions. And yet, few major studio films feel more acutely of this moment. Nightmare Alley spins a sordid drama about liars and what gets people to believe them, a cycle of exploitation where wealth and privilege are the only thin lines separating a swindler from a sucker from a geek. Crucially, the film spends very little time in the actual alley from which the movie gets its title, but it’s always there. There are countless Nightmare Alleys all across America, and the moment you think you’re above ending up in one is the moment you’re doomed to be trapped there.