Nightmare Alley (2021)

Guillermo del Toro | 2hr 20min

There are no supernatural monsters or contemporary fairy tales to be found in Nightmare Alley, though this isn’t exactly a significant change of pace for Guillermo del Toro given the layers of human corruption that underly his grimy, expressionist production design. But where Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water celebrated the fantasies we hold onto at our lowest points, here del Toro indicts them as nothing more than sly manipulations, upholding those power structures which distract us from harsh realities. He has often used historical wars as backdrops to his stories, and here it is World War II that lurks behind the disillusioned American culture on display, transforming it in the ideal environment for an opportunistic con artist like Stanton Carlisle to make a name for himself.

Bradley Cooper’s effortless charm has rarely found a better fit than it does here in the role of this film noir antihero. Stan spits out lies with ease, shifting his accent from a natural Southern drawl to a theatrical, clipped elocution when he is up onstage, but he is also evidently patient in learning his craft. His introduction is surprisingly silent for such a verbose character, as we first meet him burying a dead body in a rural house and burning it down without a word, before taking a job as a carny and quietly observing the work of more experienced performers. The transition between these worlds is sudden, as on his bus ride the lighting suddenly shifts from a warm, yellow glow into a murky green, leading us down a dark path into a strange new setting.

Lilith’s office illuminated in this soft, copper glow, defining the space as a separate world to the rainy, murky carnival.
Even without a supernatural setting, del Toro still finds time to captivate us with ghostly images like these.

The captivatingly eerie atmosphere that del Toro builds through his delightfully expressionistic mise-en-scène is a wonder to behold, and although it manifests all throughout, from the dim copper lighting of a psychologist’s office to a ghostly, snowy cemetery at night, it is the carnival that proves to be his greatest set of them all. True to the film’s noir influence, rain and lightning pour across this landscape of funhouses, carousels, Ferris wheels, and wooden stages, each one adorned with dim lightbulbs that hazily illuminate the grime and grease. In those moments where Nightmare Alley’s narrative slows down, it is his luxurious cinematography that whisks us away instead, letting us bask in the stunningly moody imagery of the piece.

Art deco-inspired decor paired with brilliant lighting setups.
Direct callbacks to German expressionism in the mise-en-scène. This might as well be a shot from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari rendered in colour.

Perhaps just as dominant yet not quite as immediately apparent is del Toro’s constantly moving camera, traversing these environments with equal parts caution and intrigue. There is always a restlessness to these tracking shots, from longer takes that manoeuvre through the carnival to simple conversations where a push in on a character’s face invites us into their world. Paired with this is a dogmatic dedication to low angles, forcing us to gaze up through wide-angle lenses at these oppressive sets and the shady figures which inhabit them, striking us with a sense of awe and majesty. Even in the establishing shots, del Toro’s horizon is consistently situated right near the bottom of the frame, accentuating the foreboding grey clouds hanging over the carnival.

Low angles and canted angles making for gorgeous compositions like these all throughout.

It is in this unearthly setting where Stan picks up on the rules of mentalism with ease, enthusiastically embracing the “dos” and rejecting the “don’ts”. The first of these codes is a warning against turning performances into spook shows, where one pretends to be in contact with deceased relatives of audience members. The second cautions against falling into the trap of “shut eye”, in which a mentalist begins to believe their own deceptions, blinding themselves to the dangers of exposure. When Stan falls in love with fellow performer Molly and decides to head out into the real world with their own double act, he is all too happy to break the first of these laws, convincing himself that he is offering a valuable service. People are desperate to be told who they are, he reasons, thereby also submitting to a “shut eye” of a different kind, convincing himself that he cannot fail.

Still more monstrous image in line with del Toro’s usual fascinations, made all the more daunting by the constant low angles.

Stan’s character development abides quite closely by the traditional film noir protagonist arc, whereby a fatal flaw brings about a downfall written into their destiny from the start, but there is also a wonderful formal consistency in the motif of alcoholism representing a loss of dignity. As far as Stan is concerned, those addicts who are entirely dependent on booze are the lowest form of humanity, and the recurring flashbacks to the first scene progressively reveal little pieces of his past that offer reason to this burning resentment.

Later when he joins up with the carnival, Stan discovers what exactly happens to those people with nowhere left to go, many of them being enlisted as “geeks” who bite the heads off chickens and are kept compliant with a steady supply of moonshine. This is the closest to a classic del Toro “monster” that Nightmare Alley gets, though in mirroring this scene between both ends of this narrative, it achieves a poetic circularity, drawing these bestial qualities back to a very human brand of cruelty. Cooper’s remarkable transformation finally hits with its full astounding weight in the final scenes, leaving us haunted by the prospect that a single man has the potential to carry such extreme multitudes in his being, though perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising. That viciousness has always been inside him. The only difference now is the carnival act through which he publicly expresses it.

Nightmare Alley is currently playing in cinemas.

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