Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a haunting and mesmerizing film experience. Set in the late 1930s, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a man running from his past sins. The opening images of him hiding a body under floorboards and then burning the whole house down, haunt him. He stumbles across a carnival and is offered a job to help them pack up in a storm. He stays and learns how to be a grifter from Zeena (Toni Collette) and her sidekick husband Pete (David Strathairn). But Stan is ambitious and eventually runs away with the girl doing an electricity act, Molly (Rooney Mara). They start a psychic act in a swanky hotel, but things get complicated when Stan ignores Zeena’s best piece of advice, “Don’t do the spook show.”
The film is broken up into two main acts: the carnival and the stage show. The carnival has a very run-down, dirty and worn feel to everything. We are often in a maze of big top tents, banners advertising the world’s strongest man or glowing glass jars of pickled specimens. While most of the carnies seem happy, we know there is cruelty lurking under the surface, especially after Clem (Willem Dafoe) explains to Stan how he finds geeks for the sideshow.
My favorite setting in the carnival is inside the “funhouse” where depictions of the seven deadly sins welcome you and signs read “Take a look at yourself, sinner” next to warped mirrors. You walk through the fun house through huge opening mouths of the devil or skulls. It looks more frightening than fun, and serves as a warning to the weak minded carnival goers. On a second viewing, I saw it as a metaphor for Stan’s life.
The second act is when Stan and Molly are on their own doing a stage show in a swanky hotel. Everything in this part of the movie is very clean, shiny, upper class and has a beautiful art deco look. I don’t want to give away too much about what happens in this part, but even though the look is completely different, that intense foreboding atmosphere that is established before in the carnival scenes lingers and intensifies to this film’s magnificent finish.
Nightmare Alley is currently nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, cinematography, production design and costume design.
This is by far my favorite Oscar nominated film this year. In fact I watched the film a second time and loved the foreshadowing I could see throughout the film. Both times, I was hooked with that first image and could not look away until the very end. Perhaps it’s because I’m a sucker for Bradley Cooper, but I think more of it is about Guillermo del Toro’s perfect direction, the intense and beautiful settings and a story that unfolds so methodically that it keeps you on the edge until that last laugh. Nightmare Alley is one of those rare films that gets a Best Picture nomination and not much else simply because there is no denying how great it is.
“Step right up and behold one of the unexplained mysteries of the universe! Is he man or is he beast?”