By: Amanda Guarragi
Guillermo Del Toro takes us back to New York City in the 1940s. We meet down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) charms his way into a relationship with Zeena the Steer (Toni Collette) and her mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn) at a traveling carnival. Using this newly acquired knowledge, Carlisle crafts a golden ticket to success by swindling the elite and wealthy. Hoping for a big score, he soon hatches a scheme to con a dangerous tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) with help from a mysterious psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who might be his most formidable opponent yet.
The excitement for this Del Toro project stems from how visually impactful his filmography is. For him to tackle film noir with Nightmare Alley was a real treat. The story is a bit dense and it does take a bit to find its footing, but essentially, it’s the exploration of one’s mind and how past trauma can be used to assess others. The way Del Toro frames the carnival acts, places you directly into the mind of the carnies and the performers. While doing so, through Carlisle, we get to see how these acts are formed and the trickery that goes into making money. For Cooper, Collette, Strathairn, and head carny, Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), there’s a duality with their performances that adds another layer to the deception of the carnival.
Throughout this film we see the evolution of Carlisle and how he uses these tricks to advance financially. Once he meets, Dr. Lilith Ritter, that is when the film picks up. The first act is slow but still interesting because of the in-depth analysis of the human psyche and how these performers have learned to dissect their audience. We see Carlisle master these tricks and when Ritter comes in, she counters his skills. Blanchett’s intensity as a femme fatale in Del Toro’s picture is one of the most intriguing performances of the year. They both had great chemistry and definitely delivered on the typical tropes within the genre.
Nightmare Alley has a strong story that dives into the human mind and past trauma. Del Toro finds what makes his characters tick and helps them heal in different ways. Stanton Carlisle comes full circle by the end of this film. He realizes the path that he chose was overly ambitious and filled with greed. He was humbled by his experiences and was stripped down to his natural self, hoping to start anew and to live the life he always knew he would be apart of. If anything, Carlisle’s character is the most complex in the entire film because of how he chose to express his trauma as a tool, rather than finding a way to heal.