Nightmare Alley (2021) is Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of the 1946 novel of the same name and the second feature film adaptation following the 1947 version. While receiving almost universal positive critical acclaim and reception, the box office demonstrated otherwise. Partially because of the ongoing pandemic and partially because of the style and type of film this happens to be, in short, there were not a lot of people going to the theaters and even less that would be the intended audience for this particular film. Which, in all honesty, is unfortunate because, while admittedly a bit long though only mildly longer than some of del Toro’s previous work, Nightmare Alley still stands as one of his greatest works focusing on character interaction and narrative exchange without the spectacle aspect of the supernatural. It is frankly a slow, intense build that shows a great understanding of film and of noir.
Nightmare Alley is the noir story of Stanton Carlisle’s (played with just the right mix of smugness worthy of being punched and legitimate charisma by Bradley Cooper) rise and fall through the machinations and consequences of his own hubris and insecurities. We see the events of Carlisle’s life over the course of roughly two years as he joins a wandering carnival while attempting to escape his past sins and crimes. And does he have a proverbial laundry list of them. While at this circus, Carlisle learns and develops his natural charms into a legitimate cold reading and manipulation act learned from the resident “clairvoyant” of the troupe. He also learns of the “geek” a tragic individual whose pitiful circumstances are sold to a hungry and depraved audience. Having found a suitable woman that he grows attached to , Stanton leaves the carnies and reinvents himself as a psychic act for the wealthy elite of Buffalo.
Here is where the true story of the film unfolds, Stanton’s time at the circus was essentially precursor and background to establish his arc in the latter half of the movie. It also acts as a foil to who Carlisle becomes away from the carnival. While with the carnival, Stanton appeared to be a man down on his luck desperately trying to be a better version of himself and his circumstances. A bit arrogant and a little full of himself, but still ultimately a decent man. However, events in Buffalo, away from the carnival, show how much of that was truly a façade. Gone are the restraints and better angels that tempered Stanton Carlisle’s vices and attitudes, and he is now free to pursue his vices and ambitions of fame, power, and money without concern for others. This pursuit leads to his ultimate demise and extreme fall from grace foreshadowed in a telling conversation with Clem, the owner of the carnival Carlisle worked at.
Nightmare Alley in several ways is a departure from Guillermo del Toro’s work as it has no real supernatural or monstrous element to it outside of the horrors that man, himself, is capable of. However, it is also classic del Toro in that it is a modern take on genre classics that show love and care for the genre it is working in while still having a specific del Toro look and style. The film does not deviate too much from the original narrative nor from the 1947 adaptation. Admittedly, this does hinder this version somewhat as the first adaptation felt more unique and visceral in its interaction and ending. Though del Toro’s version has a strong and talented cast for every role with no one actor outshining or taking center lead from the ensemble. Again, this has its pros and cons, but I believe acts as an overall strength in expressing Carlisle’s narrative arc and the downtrodden everyman aspect to it.
I fully understand the criticisms and complaints concerning Nightmare Alley. I even share some of them. Still, it is a worthy addition to del Toro’s growing pantheon of films and one that hopefully finds the audience it deserves. Recommend watching this one and in Black and White if able to. Definitely adds another dimension to the noir feel and style.