Viewers have already witnessed Stan Carlisle carry a corpse and light a house on fire by the time a puzzling Bradley Cooper speaks his very first line in the role of the character merely several minutes after Guillermo del Toro’s lavishly constructed on “Nightmare Alley”. The man arriving at the 1930s traveling carnival inhabited with weird acts of mild mentalism and bizarre cautioning tales is a runaway, not from the police but his own unresolved bitterness.
Having been said with hesitation, those words are directed at the operation’s geek, an alcoholic guy who became dehumanized for nasty amusement broke out from the loose confinement within a terrifying place that warns tourists of the impending doom. But what’s thrilling at this point is that Stan has no idea about his fast ascension to a top-billing enchanter along with a thundering crash while he is actually looking at a mirror.
It’s not simply because of the adaptation of Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film or the original novel of William Lindsay Gresham that we can figure out where Stan’s route leads to. Even those who are not acquainted with one or both of the above sources will possibly recognize the cyclical fable that del Toro develops through his grasp and reuse of noir elements, in terms of visual and conceptual. His film “Nightmare Alley” is a psychologically thrilling movie growing in downward spirals. By entering those, Stan runs the risk of getting lost and never finding a way to the other side.
The rotations of an immense Ferris wheel appear to be the most compatible example of circular symbolism. The disorienting depth of the world when Stan arrives in Buffalo, New York, is even more evident in Tamara Deverell’s impeccably producing design, which is heavily depicted in shades of green and gold: endless hallways, spacious office spaces, and narrow roads that strictly follow dramatic requirements of the movie even more than time accuracy.
Deverell’s creation is inextricably linked to cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s, who has been cooperating with the Mexican filmmaker four times already, and whose single-source lighting picks offer the actors a timeless, radiant atmosphere difficult to be found in a studio. There’s flawlessly innate artistry added to del Toro’s work, which has a basically unrivaled degree of every detail, at least in terms of genre movie. Not completely lost in Del Toro’s new vision, his iconic monsters as a pickled creature named Enoch, finished with a third eye, hovers somewhere between high-class artifice and mystery mythology.
Stan gradually gets familiar with a top-notch cast of quirky characters at the carnival. Two of del Toro’s past partners, Clifton Collins Jr. and Ron Perlman, appear in minor roles among those figures. The “young buck” discovered a brand new calling in the strange pair Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn). They can pretend to read people’s minds and predict items while being blindfolded using a complex chain of word code secretly and trickily. By obtaining their powers, the goal of the deceptive antihero is likely to take control over the typical person’s disbelief, as he attempts to court Molly (played by Rooney Mara), an innocent carnie who easily falls for the panache he shows without efforts.
Cooper, considered one of Hollywood’s most dependably fascinating actors when it comes to picking roles, creates enchantment with an understatedly stunning performance that charts the arc of Stan from doubtful naiveté to crazy confidence and finally miserable surrender. The final purpose here isn’t to imitate a legendary star’s demeanor but to make these shifts plausible enough to make us question his level of ruthlessness.
The characters’ motives and existential vicissitudes have been deepened in del Toro’s 21st-century adaptation, with more than a few evident changeovers in comparison with the 1947 version. Cooper’s incarnation of a boy in the body of a man still begging for validation and fighting against the world in a disguise of success to demand it, for instance, makes issues of Stan’s daddy a bigger relevant context.
Take as an example, an initial scenario at Zeena and Pete’s home, where the elder guy presents his manipulative tricks. Stan, who presents himself like a puppy with shining eyes, falls for the protest that indicates he sadly had a tough relationship with his father in the past. He felt emotionally exposed for a little moment in the warmth of recognition and acknowledgment of another, only to learn that he is only a negligible part of the common denominator. He was read as if he was just a book, proving that Pete’s point of view is correct.
Pete shouts out: “People are desperate to be seen”. “People are desperate to tell you who they are.” The reality contained in the statement is bone-chilling in a pithy but piercing way. He continues to warn of “spook shows,” which play with the idea of appearing to have paranormal abilities to speak with the hereafter. Obviously, Stan continues to follow this goal when he and Molly flee the countryside for the big city.
Stan’s unscrupulous path crossing with Dr. Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist with a distaste for individuals like him who scam the unwary out of their money, is at the highest level of his accomplishment. Blanchett excellently portrays a crafty femme fatale armed with perceptive people-reading abilities and the knowledge she possesses with delectable malevolence. The actress, whose appearance is a model of elegance, is outstanding for her consciously mischievous movements and sharp questions, which shatter her adversary’s façade. Underestimating Blanchett’s amazing ability to exceed her own highest standard is never the right decision.
Lilith is getting more and more bloodthirsty after her interactions with Stan, and she continuously drains the low self-esteem of the attractive charlatan through each session. Those face-to-face meetings in secret between her and Cooper in her sumptuous office are the movie’s most fascinating scenes that viewers could expect, as from the switch in the power dynamic does the weaker link emerge. That’s when Stan becomes too enamored with the power he believes that he owns when compelling affluent older men that he can connect with the dead and atone for their sins, he goes closer to his imminent fate, preceded by incidents of gruesome violence.
“Nightmare Alley” is a hypnotic film with its progressively slow-burning story progression and appealing ambiance, especially it draws the audience down with its self-destructive main character. Uncontrolled greed finally traps Stan in a circle of hell he creates himself, or, if one chooses to be compassionate, caused by his proclivity to seek more to fill a hole. In any event, the film’s closing shot, albeit foreshadowed, resounds as a huge tragedy. In any way, the film’s ending scene, albeit foreshadowed, rings like a huge tragedy.