By: Jonathan J. Williams
For those of you who may be unaware, I want to be clear before starting this review that NIGHTMARE ALLEY is not a horror film. Directed by the ever-talented and spooky Guillermo Del Toro, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a Neo-Noir. While NIGHTMARE ALLEY was previously made into a 1947 film noir, Del Toro insists that this is not a remake of the previous film, but his own adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY may seem outside the realm of Del Toro’s usual work in dealing with monsters and the otherworldly, but it remains true to the central theme of all his work, humans are the real monsters here, and not the startling creatures and oddities we may encounter in his stories.
The film follows Stanton “Stan” Holbrook (played by Bradley Cooper), who, after burning down his home for mysterious reasons, takes a job as a carny in a traveling circus. Here he meets a clairvoyant named Madame Zeena (played by Toni Collette), and her alcoholic husband, Pete (played by David Stratham). Both take Stan under their wing, teaching him how to succeed as a carny, while also mentoring him in the ways of “cold reading” a mentalist code language that
creates the illusion of being able to communicate with the past, present, and future.
However, the teaching comes with a warning, when it comes to the dead, do not let your performance become a “spook show." In other words, should a customer become too enamored by the illusion, it is best to reveal to them that it was all a trick, and send them on their way. Otherwise, the charade could have serious consequences. During his time with the carnival, Stan falls in love with a performer named Molly (played by Rooney Mara), and together they decide to leave the carnival and start their own act. They want to perfect their “cold reading” act and perform it for wealthy New York crowds as “The Great Stanton.”
It is at one of these performances that Stan meets Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchette),as she attempts to expose Stan’s act during one of his performances only to find she has met a comparable match. Intrigued, she invites Stan to her office where she leads him to a new mark, Judge Ritter, who had hired Lilith to test stan’s authenticity as a clairvoyant. Convinced Stan is the real deal, Ritter hires Stan to reach out beyond the grave to reconcile with his deceased wife. With the prospect of making a lot of money and his career on the line, Stan decides to go
through with the “spook show” for the judge, which results in dire consequences.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a master film. I am convinced that, like Steven Spielberg, Del Toro is one of the master filmmakers that can switch between commerce and art without hesitation. This film is a feast for the eyes, with an astonishing production design. You couldn’t take your eyes off the screen if you tried. While, in all honestly, I find Bradley Cooper’s performance a bit bland, this is a film noir, after all, and just like all noirs, it is the women who hold your attention.
While Toni Collette and Rooney Mara deliver incredible performances as Madame Zeena and Stan’s love interest, Molly, it is Cate Blanchette as Lilith who steals the show as the premier femme fatale of this noir. If the production design is a feast for the eyes, Blanchette is the dessert. It is a rare occurrence that I would ever use the phrase “chews up the scenery,” but this would be an appropriate one. Throughout the film, she is able to not only manipulate the helpless Stan on screen, but the audience as well.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY may not be a horror film, but nevertheless, there are monsters here. Del Toro’s re-envisioning of the source material reminded me of the underrated series Carnivale, that lasted only for a moment on HBO ages ago, and it does not disappoint. While some may complain it doesn’t contain enough monsters or “horror” for a Del Toro film, I think the monsters are very present, and like all of his stories, they’re hidden in plain sight.
We often forget that horror and film noir are closely related. After all, it was German expressionists like F.W. Murnau, director of the original Nosferatu and countless other film noirs, that gave birth to many of the techniques horror directors use today. At one point in time L.A. Confidential was the neo-noir to which all modern-day noirs were compared, and … to that end, I am convinced Del Toro has raised the bar.