By Tom Wiles, Third Year, Theatre & Film
Everyone has sinned. You. Me. Bradley Cooper, to name a certain few. Everyone also, I imagine, enjoys some sin from time to time. Step right up Guillermo Del Toro you peculiar, unorthodox man and your new delightfully sinful film Nightmare Alley! An adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 crime thriller novel of the same name oozing in neo-noir goodness; if you can label it goodness anyway.
Nightmare Alley tells the story of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a troubled drifter who wanders into a carnival ground in search of work during the late 1930’s. Once Carlisle assimilates himself into the world of carnivorous carnival cons, he develops (or rather steals) a money-making scheme of his own, travelling to New York City to grift the rich masses of the 1940s, with assistance from a magnificent Rooney Mara who plays Molly, a fellow carny. His high-class grifting leads Carlisle into the iron sights of Doctor Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a powerful psychiatrist with plans for Carlisle to scam New York’s most influential and sinister elite.
If you haven’t caught wind of Guillermo Del Toro’s work before, you are truly missing out on some bizarre masterpieces. Whether it’s Pans Labyrinth (2006) - the one with the guy with eyes in his palms - or The Shape of Water (2017) featuring human/fish sex - or if its Blade 2 (2002), whatever that film was, Del Toro’s style of fantastical, dark, and psychologically dizzying auteurism is unarguably worth your time. The same can also be said of Nightmare Alley. And whilst I enjoyed the film I did in fact crave a scalding hot shower after watching it. In case you were wondering.
Firstly, Del Toro, much like with his other projects, adored the source material and has stated as much in interviews since Nightmare Alley’s release. Which is normally a promising sign. Secondly, the locations and set dressings will grift you into thinking you’re thriving in the bizarre noire fanfare of the carnival grounds, my favourite set piece of the entire film other than Ritter’s immaculate office space.
It is very clear that a herculean amount of effort has been put into each and every detail on screen. Coincidentally, my own family come from a carny background, so I have the added bonus of imagining my mother doing any number of the wacky carnival antics on display, other than that harrowing geek show sequence, that would not be ideal, or plausible as she is a vegetarian.
The all-star cast deliver exceptional performances all-round as to be expected. Whether it's Cate Blanchett obviously stealing the entire show as Ritter, or Richard Jenkins making you hate rich people more than you already should, or Willem Dafoe playing pretty much every character he has ever performed; everyone fires on all appropriate cylinders.
Bradley Cooper especially has been singled out for giving his ‘career-best’ as Carlisle, a character whose commitment to manipulating emotionally vulnerable people, albeit horrendous and emotionally vulnerable rich people, is all the more resonant knowing that at some point, his comeuppance will be appropriate.
This is the same for all of the themes explored and narratives told through the film, themes of power, sin, deception and wacky facial hair, and the entire narrative as a whole presents a satisfying conclusion to characters guilty of all kinds of sin. None of that sin, thankfully, includes graphic fish sex. Now go and take that shower.
Featured Image: IMDB
Did you think Nightmare Alley was another resounding success for Del Toro?