“Nightmare Alley” is a feast for the senses, a visually delectable film filled with some rather unsavoury content. In simple terms, it could be called a retelling of the story of Icarus, as the protagonist, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), flies too close to the sun in his attempts to con dangerous people out of their money. However, there is so much more to the film than the simple storyline of the rise and fall of one crooked carny; “Nightmare Alley” is brimming with detail, beauty, and rather unfortunately, some overly disturbing scenes.
Set in 1940s America, the film traverses the worlds of travelling circuses, filled with noise, gaiety, and excitement, alongside the glamorous homes, bars, and lifestyles of the social elite. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, whose other films, such as “Crimson Peak” and “The Shape of Water”, have been immersive and atmospheric through their rich attention to detail and impressive cinematography, it’s only to be expected of “Nightmare Alley” to live up to the high bar that precedent has dictated, a feat which it achieves, aided by masterful performances from a first-rate cast.
“Nightmare Alley” initially depicts all the traditional hallmarks of a circus: the big striped tent, the colourful stages, and the crowds who gather to watch the acts, which vary from strongmen to mentalism to women conducting electricity through themselves. However, this circus has a dark underbelly: the colourful tents are dirty and fraying at the edges, the circus owner is a manipulative and sinister character who collects foetuses in jars, and perhaps worst of all, the circus profits off a geek, a caged man who is starved to the point where he, emaciated and half-naked, is forced to bite the heads off of live chickens in front of roaring crowds to survive.
This seedy circus atmosphere embodies itself in the protagonist, Stanton. He is at once charming and charismatic, learning the tricks of mentalism from fellow carny Pete to charm and out-wit willing crowds, while at times also showing a darker, more sinister side, metaphorically depicted in shots of his low-tipped hat silhouetted against the light, or in the recurring flashbacks of him setting a body and house alight in the past.
As with this scene, the film drops rather obvious crumbs throughout which herald an unlucky fall for Stanton, such as ex-mentalist Pete’s fears about the grip that mentalism can hold on a performer, who may begin to forget that it’s an act. A viewer gets the sense that Pete himself had flown too close to the sun at some earlier point in life and had suffered his own crash-and-burn situation, leaving him as the dependent alcoholic that he is introduced as. If only Stanton had managed to pull himself out of the alluring swamp of mentalism and his own arrogance, perhaps a similarly kind fate could have awaited him.
Later, as Stanton prepares to undertake his biggest scam yet, against dangerous tycoon Ezra Grindle, Zeena reads his tarot cards; once more, he refuses to see the danger in the hanged man card before him. Alongside Cate Blanchett’s performance of the sordid psychologist, Dr Lilith Ritter, and despite the “moral centre” exhibited by Molly (Rooney Mara), as del Toro described her, human depravity is exhibited throughout “Nightmare Alley”.
The cyclical nature of the film is arguably its best feature, leaving an audience shocked and speechless; however, the methods of achieving this, with ultra-graphic shots of a geek’s suffering and close-ups of brutal murders, leave lasting, unsettling images in the viewer’s mind. Whilst it’s an enjoyable film, with excellent acting from Cooper, Blanchett, and Mara, the frankly harrowing shots throughout mean that I for one would not watch it again.
Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons