Review: Tricky Manipulation in Guillermo del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley'
by Alex Billington
December 17, 2021
"Step right up and behold one of the unexplained mysteries of the universe! Is he a man or beast?" This is the ultimate question to ask at the end of this film. Beloved Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has returned with his latest movie, Nightmare Alley, his 11th feature so far. It's a re-adaptation of the novel written by William Lindsay Gresham (first published in 1946), but also connects directly to the classic 1947 film also titled Nightmare Alley (which is a part of the Criterion Collection). I've seen both films and they're quite similar, but del Toro's update is much more slick, much more beautiful-to-look-at – shot in color with all of his usual visual tricks and atmosphere. And it focuses much more on the Icarus-esque journey of the main character "Stan" Carlisle, rather than the eclectic mix of carnies that he befriends during the first half.
Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley tells the story of Stanton "Stan" Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper, a mysterious man with the innate ability to deceive and manipulate and craftily talk his way in to, or out of, any situation. He initially discovers he fits right in at a classic "freak show" carnival, so he starts working there for pennies; at least his colleagues are all as skilled as he is at tricking customers out of those pennies. When he discovers he can go even further and climb higher by learning the techniques of a master psychic, figuring out how to fool audiences into believing that he knows everything about them, he becomes obsessed with fame and fortune. It's a wickedly good film – Guillermo del Toro's grifter showcase. The entire cast is delectable. The film draws you into its old school storytelling charm with a slick story about a man trying to walk away from his past, until it catches up with him again. There are quite a few lessons to learn from this.
The real trick of this film is making us question and examine the intentions and flaws of the main character, Stan – to understand him and get a sense of what makes him compelling, but what also ultimately leads to his downfall. It seems to be a story about manipulation and coercion, and obsessing over achievement and power and money. In the original 1947 film, the line at the end "he reached too high" is a very obvious wink at the moral of the story. And this message still resonates 74 years later. In del Toro's new film, the morals seem to be murkier, as the film very smoothly takes us through his progression from carnie to mastermind. Ultimately, it's still a story about someone who thinks they can get away from their past by using deception to earn money, and when you have money and success, you don't have to worry anymore. Or do you…? The harsh truth is that we can't truly escape our past, no matter how hard we try, no matter the money we have.
Digging into this more, it seems to be (among many things) a cautionary tale about the desire to "be seen" and how that incessant drive can lead to many being manipulated and taken advantage of, falling for false prophets and false hope. It's really refreshing to see this in a film because it's very much the opposite of how things are nowadays. How bold of GdT to tell this kind of story. It also seems to be a cautionary tale about how using tricks and grifts and manipulation to enrich oneself will also lead to doom and downfall. Be wary, because it's an attractive skillset and seduces many. As obvious as it all seems, it's so easy to get caught up in this enrichment. But when karma catches up with you, along with your past, you won't like where you end up next. A film about the ultimate fate of manipulators and conmen who just want to make more money, without realizing the moral & ethical implications of their methods & deceptions. It's a dangerous business.
I also thoroughly enjoy seeing a film that actually has a complete story to tell. So many films these days are just one act stories drawn out over three acts. But there are still films that tell full three act stories, taking us all way from bottom to top, then right back down again. I don't want to give away anything more with this one, because seeing Stan go through the motions to become a success is one of the best parts of this story, and that's not even the half of it. It's not really about him learning the tricks of the trade, it's where those tricks take him… And how that can seem seductively worthwhile and advantageous, especially to your bank account / safe, but it can also be blinding and consuming. It's not at all a surprise that del Toro knows how to make a superb film with a story that actually takes us on a complete journey, through three very different acts, ultimately staying true to its values. Maybe it's commentary on the film industry? Don't reach too high.
Nightmare Alley is indeed one of the first films that Guillermo del Toro has made that doesn't include any monsters or creatures or fantasy or magic, but that doesn't make it any less captivating. Especially because, above all, the story here means something. And it's always so easy to watch del Toro's films. He knows how to make every single shot look so detailed and evocative. He knows how to cast and bring some of the best performances out of his actors. Ron Perlman! Willem Dafoe! Cate Blanchett! Rooney Mara! Bradley Cooper! Richard Jenkins! All of them are at their best working with maestro Guillermo. The film is very similar to the old 1947 film, with some new twists and turns. It looks exquisite, it makes you think, it challenges your convictions. Everything that intelligent and engaging cinema should offer us. Just don't fall for Stan's tricks.