If there’s one thing Guillermo del Toro loves, it’s a freak show. From Pan’s Labyrinth to The Shape of Water to Crimson Peak, del Toro is most at home when he brings the monsters hiding in the darkness of society’s shadows into the light. It’s no wonder, then, that his take on the classic noir Nightmare Alley takes the time to examine the traveling carnival, an inviting spectacle that is rotted underneath the glitzy advertisements and twinkling lights.
It’s a lot like our protagonist Stan, played with cold charm by Bradley Cooper. An opportunist whose moral compass doesn’t quite point north, Stan is running from his past. He quickly finds a home amidst the hucksters and so-called “freaks” of the carnival led by Willem Dafoe’s Clem. Looking for his next hustle, he begins to learn the trade of clairvoyance from two of his fellow performers, setting off a dangerous series of events as Stan’s new act proves lucrative — and deadly.
del Toro always has top tier world building and atmosphere, two attributes that have the chance to shine here. The carnival itself is a masterclass in production design from Tamara Deverell and Shane Vieau, the latter of whom shared in the Academy Award for the production design of The Shape of Water. The level of detail is astounding, from the worn banners and tents to the fair rides. It feels lived in and does wonders for establishing the scope of the film early on. Stan’s later ascent to 1940s high society is just as beautiful, with gorgeous costumes that deliberately imitate the films of that era. The cinematography by Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water) is top notch, as it always is in a del Toro film, with some absolutely breathtaking shots involving the carnival in particular.
del Toro also isn’t afraid to show the sideshow attractions, which adds a level of realism that posits difficult questions for audiences. This is one of the few del Toro films with no supernatural elements. Here, the carnival performers are made freakish by society itself, not some otherworldly spell or truly alien characteristics. Historically, freak shows were both a blessing and a curse for those that society would otherwise cast aside. While the potential for abuse was high and the living conditions varied widely (which we also see depicted in Nightmare Alley), for many carnies, the carnival circuit provided one of the few paths to economic stability for disabled or otherwise outcast individuals who could not find employment elsewhere.
After all, if people will gawk no matter what, why not charge them for it? del Toro examines our tendency to be fascinated by so-called “freaks” even as we push them out of society, paying homage to the classic film Freaks as he asks who the real creeps are. It may not be the most original theme in the world, but it’s extremely effective here as Stan begins to realize that everyone is one fall from grace away from being the object of that ceaseless judgement and scorn.
The ensemble cast of performers elevate Nightmare Alley, particularly Cooper. He is most interesting as an actor when he pushes against the “attractive nice guy” persona he built his early career on (as he has previously in American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook). del Toro weaponizes Cooper’s ability to say all the right things while looking dead behind his eyes. It disorients the viewer, who can never be sure of his intentions, and it makes the twists in the final act that much more satisfying.
Cooper’s Stan meets his match in Cate Blanchett’s Lilith, who oozes danger from her first appearance on screen. A psychologist who has doubts about Stan’s abilities, Blanchett has a field day going toe to toe with Cooper. She is at her best playing femme fatales with questionable motivations, and this role seems tailor-made for her. Watching her slink from scene to scene like a cat playing with its food is a delight. And as usual, Willem Dafoe makes the most out of every frame of screen time he is given, proving once again that he is a go-to character actor for a reason.
Nightmare Alley is not the best of del Toro’s filmography, with occasionally slow pacing and a tendency to hammer home themes with less subtlety than he usually exhibits. But it says something about his talent that a so-so del Toro film is still excellent, and it deserves the awards buzz it has gotten (particularly in the craft categories). It’s worth it to take a stroll through del Toro’s carnival of horrors, with engaging performances and a diverting world to get lost in.
Nightmare Alley is out now only in theaters.