Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up to his Best Picture winner is a bold new step in the director’s filmograph
Guillermo del Toro is a director like few others, that has imprinted such a unique style on his pictures that you can recognize them with a mere glance. However, unlike a similarly described Wes Anderson, del Toro has pushed out of his comfort zone, challenging himself instead of indulging in cliches. Nightmare Alley (2021) has del Toro find a way to restrain his more fantastical tendencies for a more focused psychological noir.
Nightmare Alley is adapted from a 1946 book of the same name. Despite there being another film adaptation of the 40s, Del Toro takes on a direct adaptation of the book instead of remaking the film. We follow the mysterious wanderer Stanton (Bradley Cooper) who is hired as a helping hand at a circus run by the swindling Clem (Willem Dafoe). There, Stanton begins to learn the tricks of the trade and soon becomes adept at faking psychic readings. With newfound fame and money, Stanton begins to fall deeper into his use of psychosis to dangerous levels.
Del Toro has always been fascinated with outcasts in his films, it certainly makes one wonder why he had never set any of his films in a circus before; a true collection of societal rejects. Del Toro certainly has his fun with the imagery and kinks of Nightmare Alley’s circus, but he is impressively restrained and focused instead on both clouding and unraveling Stanton as a character. Del Toro becomes fascinated with the game of cat and mouse that Stanton is playing with the ghosts of his past and the ones of his duped customers. The Mexican director seeks to keep viewers restless, never giving us enough time to decipher clues around the protagonist, which makes for both a thrilling and slightly confounding watch. Due to the amount of misdirection, lies, and deceit within the character’s acts, actions, and narrative, the overwhelming sense of mistrust and surrealism begins to seep in. This has a curiously ironic consequence, where because of so many lies within a cold reality a truth in fantasy starts to take shape.
Nightmare Alley is quite unlike many of Del Toro’s previous work in the sense that it is not so much focused on finding the beauty inside “ugly” characters as much as the inverse. Del Toro has sought to show the vile that “normal-looking” people can have in the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017), but rarely has made these villains and bullies the protagonists. In many ways Nightmare Alley is the boldest of Del Toro’s films for seeking to understand characters he reviles.
Del Toro is handed one of the best casts of the year in Nightmare Alley, with speaking parts seemingly exclusive to Oscar nominees and character actors. Cooper is subtly solid in the lead role. His is a rather thankless performance since it is in restraint and seeming plainness that Stanton lives, and yet Cooper manages to show the underlying stormy interior with his tortured protagonist throughout. Cate Blanchett is another standout in a role of a psychiatrist who proves to be Stanton’s match. Blanchett channels a femme fatale aura that would have made even Howard Hawks perk up his ears. Rooney Mara is the final key piece of the puzzle, in a much smaller role than many would expect, yet crucial in providing a reference point for viewers. Mara’s love interest for Cooper’s Stanton is a way for viewers to not unmoor themselves and fall down the lies and delusions closing in. Her Molly is the remaining bastion of morality and a conscience, a brave flickering candle amongst all the darkness.
Del Toro brings about a style and tone that both nods to 1940s noir films as well as carries his own distinguished signature. Nightmare Alley is a wonderful new and challenging entry in the director’s filmography. It is a richly dense film that will have viewers picking apart at it for hours after watching. It is always encouraging to see a filmmaker seeking to push himself to new heights.