Like most people I did not see Nightmare Alley in a theater. I knew it was playing, and I knew I wanted to see it, but I never got around to it. For a while I didn’t consider it to be a loss. I like Del Toro’s films, but I can’t say any of them have left a profound impact on me. I’ve always appreciated them, but they were never really “my thing.” I always felt a level of detachment while viewing them. I can’t name any particular reason for this. I believe the man is a great filmmaker who creates great cinema. It’s not him, it’s my weird brain. I must have some bad wiring going on up there. Putting that aside, Nightmare Alley is a masterpiece. I enjoyed this more than I did The Shape of Water and Pans Labyrinth combined. Everyone (myself included) who skipped this one during its theatrical run has done themselves a great disservice. Thank God it’s getting a second life on streaming, which seems to be the real home for interesting and well made cinema these days.
Bradley Cooper stars in this remake of the 1947 noir classic as Stanton Carlisle, a man who burns down his house after putting a dead body inside, and takes a job with a traveling carnival. There he makes a few important friends, the first two being an alcoholic old man named Pete, and his clairvoyant wife Madame Zeena; and the other being a beautiful performer named Molly, whom he partners with both professionally and intimately. After Stan discovers he has a knack for the whole clairvoyant scam, he and Molly leave the carnival and find success performing psychic acts for the high class people of Buffalo. Hoping to make even more money, he elicits personal information about various people from a mysterious and alluring female psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter, thus making his act even more convincing. It is from there that things start to go too far, and the fate of our leading man starts to take a turn towards the worst.
We’re used to Del Toro movies being populated by monsters, it is accurate to say that's his directorial calling card. However, this movie is a little different from his previous efforts. The themes of greed, deception, and fate are embodied not by nightmarish creatures, but by human beings.
In the beginning of the movie Stanton seems like a likable man. The film's cold opening causes us to feel uncertain about him, but we want to like him and his intentions seem fair. This is one of Bradley Cooper's strengths as a performer. He possesses a natural charisma that's very present in the roles he chooses, but he also has the range to play characters that we as audience members never feel too comfortable with. As a result I became a very active viewer during the films runtime, constantly wondering what bad decision Stanton might make next that would ultimately get him into a deeper hole, which by the films conclusion is more like a bottomless pit of despair and regret.
If I had to single out Nightmare Alley’s greatest achievement (which would be logical given this is a review) I would have to choose the film's tone. It really feels like classic noir! All the iconic elements of the genre are front and center. We have our morally ambiguous leading man, our alluring femme fatale, and a sequence of events that keeps unfolding in the worst ways imaginable. Dan Lausten cinematography, though notably in color, would certainly feel just as moody and atmospheric black and white. In fact, I do believe a black and white cut of the movie exists. I’ll need to check that out!
When writing about this film my mind can’t help but obsess over it’s poor box office returns. Why didn’t such a great movie make money? It’s easy to assign blame to the pandemic, and it’s also quite accurate. However, the pandemic didn’t stop many people from seeing Spiderman No Way Home more than once. I think ultimately the blame has to be put on Disney for releasing this film so closely with the “Web Head’s” new movie. They were literally released theatrically on the same day! December 17th! With that information, the question goes from being, Why did this movie flop, to, How would this movie ever not flop?
Regardless of what the question may be, one thing is certain. Nightmare Alley is the kind of movie that deserves our attention; in fact, I'd go further to say Nightmare Alley is the kind of movie that needs our attention. It is us, the audience members, who decide what movie gets made. Our money, and what we choose to spend it on informs every decision that Hollywood executive and producers make. If we only put a significant amount of cash towards films about a guy swinging around New York city in a bug outfit, then all we’ll get in return is more of that. Many people can live with that, and that's perfectly fine, but I know there are a handful of people like myself who shutter at the idea. I implore these people, as well as myself, to get out of their homes and see movies like Nightmare Alley in a theater. If they can do it for Spiderman, they can do it for art. If they need to have a big screen with surround sound to enjoy a superhero movie, then why not go out of their way to have that for a movie that can offer an incredible experience no matter what it’s watched on? I’m aware it takes effort, I'm aware it costs money, but that is true for most things that are worth doing. I can’t promise that every theater experience you have will be amazing, but I can promise that if you start supporting cinema, you will eventually be rewarded. I can promise that if you take a chance and see a movie that might not be as familiar as the latest Spiderman or Batman adventure, every now and again you’ll have a new and exciting life experience that’s more than worth the price of admission. Every now and again, your senses will be overwhelmed by the magic of the movies. That I can promise with certainty.