Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley is the story of an ambitious carny who rises from being in a low-level circus to becoming a top mind-reader has him dealing with a psychiatrist who proves to be as dangerous as he is where they embark on a dangerous scheme. Directed by Guillermo del Toro and screenplay by del Toro and Kim Morgan, the film is a different take on Gresham’s novel in its exploration of human nature and how humans can become monsters as it had been previously made by Edmund Goulding that starred Tyrone Powell, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, and Helen Walker that explore the dark side of grief and the power to manipulate. Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, Willem Dafoe, Mary Steenburgen, and Ron Perlman. Nightmare Alley is a ravishing yet eerie film from Guillermo del Toro.
Set in the late 1930s/early 1940s, the film follows a man who starts off as a carny for a low-level circus where he learns the art of mind-reading that he uses to become a top mind-reader in big cities only to attract the attention of a devious psychiatrist who helps him take part on a big scheme. It is a film that explore this man who is ambitious as he believes he has something that can make him a lot of money but ends up meeting someone who is more ambitious but also far more sinister. The film’s screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan is straightforward as it is more based on Gresham’s novel with elements of the 1947 film by Edmund Goulding that featured Jules Furthman’s screenplay as it relates to these ideas that the film’s protagonist in Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) as he finds himself in a circus after burning down a house with the body of his late father where he sees what it has and takes a job as a carney.
The first act is about Carlisle’s time as a carny where he meets the clairvoyant Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) where Carlisle learns from the latter about their act while he proves to be loyal to the group when he helps out its owner Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) who would give Carlisle a job after helping to handle a troubled circus geek. Carlisle also befriends another performer in Molly (Rooney Mara) who would later join Carlisle in his own version of the clairvoyant act though Zeena and Pete warned him about going too far as the film’s second act takes place in late 1941 where Carlisle becomes successful in his act with Molly. The second act would also introduce the character of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who is intrigued by his act after fooling an acquaintance of hers where she decides to collaborate with him on a scheme on the reclusive millionaire Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) that makes Molly uneasy.
Guillermo del Toro’s direction definitely does pay homage to Goulding’s film in some bits but much of it is entrancing in his presentation of the late 1930s/early 1940s as it was shot on location in and around Toronto as well as additional locations in Buffalo, New York including its city hall. The direction has del Toro definitely emphasize a lot on tracking shots to get a look into the carnival while having Carlisle early in the film not say much as he just stumbles into the circus out of curiosity where he just looks at an act and then walks out to check what else is out there. The usage of wide and medium shots allows del Toro to showcase the scope of the carnival that Carlisle is in as well as a scene where Carlisle and Clem go after a geek inside a monster house as it is one of these great set pieces in the film. The scenes during the second act in these posh restaurants where Carlisle and Molly are doing their act also has a lot of space in the visuals while del Toro also knows when to use close-ups to play into the suspense and drama. The film also has del Toro play into the dangers of what Carlisle is doing as both Zeena and Pete had warned about going too far into people’s grief as it would be a key factor for the film’s third act.
Notably in a scene where Zeena, the strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman), and diminutive Major Mosquito (Mark Povinelli) visit Carlisle and Molly with prompting from the latter where Zeena uses her tarot cards and warned Carlisle of what he’s doing. The third act that is about Carlisle’s scheme with Dr. Ritter on Grindle as it involves Grindle’s own sense of loss and guilt as the scheme would involve Molly who realizes what is going on. It all plays into not just the downside of greed and manipulation but also how far people are willing to go get closure on their grief as it relates to news on someone Carlisle did a séance for. Its aftermath is dark into not just the fact that Carlisle went too far but also the fact that there’s people who are much worse than Carlisle who will do whatever to exploit people’s grief. Its ending is about the fate of those who are lost as it relates to the troubled geek that Carlisle tried to subdue early in the film as it relates to people and monsters. Overall, del Toro crafts a haunting yet evocative film about an ambitious carny whose ambition as false clairvoyant leads him into a path of darkness.
Cinematographer Dan Laustsen does incredible work with the film’s cinematography as its usage of lush colors and low-key natural lighting to emphasize on its dark tone but also in some of the beauty in the desolate locations they’re in that is a direct contrast to the more stylish look in the city and at Grindle’s home. Editor Cam McLauchlin does excellent work with the editing as its usage of jump-cuts, transition wipes, and other stylish cuts to play into the suspense and drama. Production designer Tamara Deverell, with set decorator Shane Vieau and supervising art director Brandt Gordon, does phenomenal work with the look of the carnival as well as Clem’s massive collection of fetuses in mason jars, some of the carnival attractions, and Dr. Ritter’s office as the attention to detail in the rooms is a major highlight of the film. Costume designer Luis Sequeira does amazing work with the costumes from the red coat and beret that Molly wears in the second/third act as well as some of her casual clothing to the more refined gowns that Dr. Ritter wears along with the ragged to refined suits the men wear.
Hair designer Cliona Furey and makeup designer Jo-Ann MacNeill, with special makeup effects supervisor Mike Hill, do excellent work with the look of the characters from the different hairstyles from the women to a few of the gory elements in some of the violence that Hill would create. Special effects supervisors Michael Innanen, Shane Mahan, Philippe Maurais, and Shane Million, with visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi, do terrific work with the visual effects as it relates to a few bits involving fire as well as Molly’s act as a woman who works with electricity as it is largely minimal except in some of the film’s violent moments. Sound editors Jill Purdy and Nathan Robitaille do superb work with the sound as it play into the way certain machines sound as well as how police sirens sound from afar as well as Dr. Ritter’s own recording equipment as it add a lot of drama and suspense into the film. The film’s music by Nathan Johnson is brilliant for its low-key orchestral score with elements of big-band jazz in some bits as it play into the music of the times with its soundtrack also featuring a lot of the standards that were popular in that period.
The casting by Robin D. Cook is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles that includes a cameo appearance from Tyrone Powell’s daughter Romina as a viewer of one of Carlisle’s show at the posh dining hall as well as notable small roles from Dian Bachar as a carnival performer, Paul Anderson as the geek that Carlisle tries to subdue early in the film, Lara Jean Chorostecki as Clem’s wife Louise, Stephen McHattie as a hobo late in the film, Troy James as a carnival performer known as the Snake Man, Clifton Collins Jr. as the carnival barker/musician Funhouse Jack, Bill MacDonald as Carlisle’s ailing father who is seen in flashbacks, Jim Beaver as a local sheriff who is trying to stop the carnival because of the skimpy clothing Molly is wearing, Mark Povinelli as a dwarf-carny who helps out in various performances including Molly’s act, Tim Blake Nelson as a carnival owner that appears late in the film, Peter MacNeill as Judge Kimball who is intrigued by Carlisle’s gift as he seeks help in relation to his late son, Holt McCallany as Grindle’s bodyguard Anderson who is suspicious towards Carlisle as he is protective of Grindle, and Mary Steenburgen in a small yet superb role as Judge Kimball’s wife as a woman who is still reeling with loss over her son.
Ron Perlman is fantastic as the strongman Bruno who is like a father figure to Molly as he knew her father as he is unsure of Carlisle’s intention towards her. David Strathairn is excellent as Pete Krumbein as an alcoholic performer who was once a great clairvoyant with a system of his own as he teaches Carlisle what to do but also warns him on what not to do. Richard Jenkins is brilliant as Ezra Grindle as a reclusive millionaire who is fascinated by Carlisle’s gift as it relates to a former lover he mourns dearly as he was once a patient of Dr. Ritter as he is the target of a scheme they’ve created as he is also a man with a very dark past. Willem Dafoe is amazing as Clem as a carnival owner who hires Carlisle as he shows him the ropes of what goes on as he also sees potential in Carlisle while being the owner of a bunch of dead fetuses in mason jars. Toni Collette is incredible as the clairvoyant performer Zeena Krumbein who takes has Carlisle working for her in helping her act while is also intrigued by him while later warning him about what he’s doing as well as reveal that he is headed for serious trouble.
Rooney Mara is remarkable as Molly Cahill as a carnival performer who works with electrical currents as part of her act as she falls for Carlisle where she joins him as his assistant while becoming troubled by his ambitions as she reluctantly takes part of his scheme only to become homesick towards the carnival family who cared for her. Cate Blanchett is tremendous as Dr. Lilith Ritter as a devious yet charismatic psychiatrist who is fascinated by Carlisle’s gift as she would seduce him to team up but also know that she is able to outsmart him. Finally, there’s Bradley Cooper in a phenomenal performance as Stanton Carlisle as this man who starts off as a low-level carny to becoming this in-demand clairvoyant who eventually becomes greedy in his ambitions where Cooper does display a lot of quiet observation early in the film but also a man that is filled guilt in his climb only to try and do something big that would eventually be his downfall as it is a career-defining performance from Cooper.
Nightmare Alley is a sensational film from Guillermo del Toro that features great performances from Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara. Along with its ensemble cast, ravishing visuals, evocative art direction, its exploration on the ideas of loss and greed, and its luscious music score. The film is definitely a fascinating suspense-drama that is a tribute of sorts to the 1947 Edmund Goulding film but also its own beast as it play into del Toro’s fascination with humanity and their monstrous elements. In the end, Nightmare Alley is a phenomenal film from Guillermo del Toro.
Guillermo del Toro Films: Cronos - Mimic - The Devil's Backbone - Blade II - Hellboy - Pan's Labyrinth - Hellboy II: The Golden Army - Pacific Rim - Crimson Peak - The Shape of Water - Pinocchio (2022 film)
Related: Nightmare Alley (1947 film) - The Auteurs #10: Guillermo del Toro
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This movie isn't perfect but there are plenty to love and appreciate. I think Bradley Cooper is underrated as he's barely in the conversation during award season but he's really strong here. As for the visuals and set design, Guillermo del Toro can't be beat!
@Ruth-I agree. I thought Cooper was great in this film as he definitely showcased a lot more range into his performance but also display a lot of humility as I wish it's a film more people are seeing right now. Though I think 1947 version is the better film, this one I feel has a better ending.
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