As a general rule, a new Guillermo del Toro film will get me out to the theater as fast as possible, and “Nightmare Alley” was no exception. (I know I’m getting older when I find myself prioritizing slow-burning arthouse stuff over “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”) That said, I didn’t really know what to expect from del Toro’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water”—a remake/expansion of a 1947 noir classic seemed like an unusual choice for the famously monster-oriented director.
Set in the late 1930s, “Nightmare Alley” picks up with drifter Stan Carlyle (Bradley Cooper), who strays into a traveling carnival and promptly finds himself hired on. There he meets Molly (Rooney Mara), a beautiful “Electric Girl” sideshow performer, and fortune-telling duo Pete (David Strathairn) and Zeena (Toni Collette). Over the years, Pete and Zeena have worked out an intricate mind-reading magic trick based on verbal cues, but have not performed it recently. They’re content enough, though, to pass it along to Stan—along with a cryptic warning against ever believing that he actually possesses psychic powers.
Once he masters the trick, Stan runs away with Molly to the big city, where their act soon becomes a major success in high society. Perpetually dogging Stan, though, is the temptation to branch out into “spook shows”—to falsely represent that his mental talents extend not merely to gimmickry, but to contact with the dead. After all, the rich and powerful will pay a high price for such feats. Soon, Stan and an ever-more-uncomfortable Molly find themselves dealing with important and dangerous men, playing for higher and higher stakes. Even more unsettling is the presence of enigmatic psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who seems willing to be complicit in Stan’s con—maybe too willing.
On the face of it, “Nightmare Alley” is a very different sort of film from del Toro’s other works. Despite its title and marketing campaign, this is not in any sense a horror movie: its violence is confined to a few shocking minutes during the climax, and its general ambiance is more eerie than menacing. Rather, “Nightmare Alley” is a bona fide neo-noir film, complete with deliberate pacing (the film clocks in at a solid 2 ½ hours), lush production design (the Art Deco sets of the film’s second half are stunners), and rough men in fedoras who call women “dames.” Also, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t note that the piano-driven score by Nathan Johnson was so good that I bought it on iTunes as soon as I left the theater.
And all told, the film is a great success. This is the type of movie that’s best watched with the lights down and cell phones put away, allowing it to wash over the viewer like a tide. But happily, there’s far more here than just gorgeous aesthetics: del Toro has turned in one of the most theme-dense, multilayered films I’ve seen all year, one that may even outdo his prior work in terms of symbolic richness.
The trope of the skeptic or debunker—who eventually comes face-to-face with the genuine supernatural—is a familiar motif in horror films. But in “Nightmare Alley,” that theme is subverted. The horror here isn’t that the paranormal manifests directly; the horror is that it doesn’t, that Stan courts moral and spiritual ruin by weaponizing others’ belief in it for his own selfish ends. Here there’s no mystical intervention or deus ex machina to paradoxically “bail him out” and cover up his history of lies; rather, Stan is thrust up against the biting awfulness of his own deceit, in all its ugliness.
Much more, of course, can be said about this theme. The overwhelming majority of del Toro’s films feature characters whose lives are shaped by “mythic narratives” in the truest sense, transcendent stories attesting to a metaphysical order beyond the material. His heroes and heroines prevail, even in the face of abjectly tragic circumstances, by living into their ontological purposes: Ofelia in “Pan’s Labyrinth” must undergo a series of ordeals in order to restore her true spiritual nature; Eliza in “The Shape of Water” finds the true meaning of her body through reunion with divinity; Hellboy, in his two del Toro films, wrestles with both his great personal powers and his seemingly tragic destiny. (Even the vampire Nyssa in “Blade II” finds peace in accepting her final annihilation by the sun’s glory.
And here the true meaning of Pete’s warning to Stan comes into view. To pretend to contact the dead—to transform the mentalist act from a “paranormal” gimmick to a necromantic triumph—is to tell a false story of the world, of its underlying spiritual structure, and so inevitably to become a character within that tale. While Stan always believes himself to be the master of his own fate, he inevitably becomes enslaved to the very myth he has promulgated—becoming, in short, a cautionary example. Or, to put it another way: Stan’s contempt for transcendence renders him a slave to immanence: in the very moment he congratulates himself on his self-won success, he hurtles toward a horrifying end.
And over it all looms a common archetype in del Toro’s work—the prophet of woe. One could describe this maybe-not-quite-human figure, altogether uncontrollable by human pretensions, as a kind of divinity with a pagan, Dionysian edge. Here one finds the faun of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the Angel of Death of “Hellboy II,” and Newton in “Pacific Rim”—all of whom speak with the cold voice of fate. Here, Dr. Lilith steps into that role—manifesting as goddess, judge, and Jungian anima alike.
Del Toro has often been described as a filmmaker who makes fairy tales for adults, and “Nightmare Alley” certainly fits the bill. It’s a tale of hubristic rise and fall set against the backdrop of eternal questions, culminating in a wickedly satisfying conclusion. Moviegoers in search of something a little more substantial than the usual holiday fare, this is the one for you. Or alternatively, if you’ve ever watched “The Maltese Falcon,” “Double Indemnity,” or “The Big Sleep” and wished that they still made movies like that, “Nightmare Alley” is a must-see.