One of the things I love most about Guillermo del Torro’s narratives is the underlying theme of Monsters.
For the last 28 years Del Torro’s mind has created some of the most terrifying mythical beasts, from Paleman in Pan’s labyrinth who feeds on children and fairies, to the Angel of Death from Hellboy with her dozen eyes spread across her skeletal winged body. This time however Del Torro has stepped away from the fantastical and magical and centered his characters in a reality that is recognizable and immediate. In Nightmare Alley the declaration is made that maybe it is each other we should truly be afraid of, that in fact we are all monsters. The question is are each of us born a monster or are we made and if so how well do we hide that side of ourselves? Some of us will wear our monster on the outside easily seen and pointed out by others but for some, their beast will lurk inside, waiting and raging to be released.
Based on the William Lindsay Gresham’s novel published in 1946, Nightmare Alley tells the tale of charismatic, yet broken drifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). The opening scene when we first meet Stan, he is seen dragging an unknown corpse across the wooden floor of a derelict house, and only moments later setting everything alight, here is a man so desperately trying to destroy whatever horrors have plagued his past. In search of a new life and seeking refuge, Stan stumbles upon a carnival run by the intimidating and gruff Clem Hoatley (William Dafoe) who despi,te his first appearance, is a man willing to give anyone a chance, as the saying goes “no one cares who you were before you arrived” it’s all about who you could be, what you can do, and will an audience pay to see it.
Clem offers Stan a position at the carnival and it is here that he meets Husband and wife duo Pete (David Strathairn) and Zeena (Toni Colette). Both veterans of the carnie scene, Zeena is an expert tarot reader who performs a popular Clairvoyant act along with her husband Pete, who was once a great mentalist, but now seeks solitude in the whisky bottle than the stage. Together they take Stan under their wing and bring him into their act, whereby an assistant feeds clues from an audience member to create the illusion of reading ones mind and having a connection to the afterlife. Pete teaches Stan every thing he knows, however does so with apprehension for in the wrong hands these tricks can cause great harm, especially when “ one starts to believe their own lies”. With this newfound power and knowledge, the determination to make a bigger and better life for himself. Stan believes that this is his golden ticket out of here. Along for the ride is the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) a fellow carnival performer with whom Stan has promised the world, together they will swindle the wealthy and elite out of their fortunes. While at one of their shows in New York City they meet the mysterious psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who they believe is seemingly there to expose their con. Stan goes to meet with Lilith and is surprised by what he finds, for the first time he feels seen and reflected in another, this leads to a dangerous meeting of the minds as Stan becomes irresistibly drawn to her and the two of them hatch a plan to extort millions from her high profile clients.
In Nightmare Alley Del Torro has created a world that is so firmly split into two and yet within it blurs that line of separation to the point where you’re not sure if and when you’ve crossed it. The push and pull between illusion and reality, desperation and control, success and tragedy. Even the scenery is a vast contrast to each other. The Carnival fairground is vibrant with the Bright lights of the Ferris wheel, the electricity sparks being zapped in Elektra (aka Molly ) the lady who can absorb any amount of voltage, to the antsy crowds that gather around the circular pit, having paid their nickel awaiting a to get glimpse at the Geek. It is the real world that is dark and menacing its cold, stark and drained of colour.
The standout Actor for me in this film hands down was Cate Blanchett, there is just something about Lilith from the moment she’s on screen that just demands your attention. Blanchett really brought this character to life, evoking the glamour and sophistication of the old Hollywood Dames of the 40's. Every moment she is on screen is just pure perfection, from her soothing hypnotic voice that enters your mind like a vapor and lingers in the brain like fog (I would happily have her talk me through a session) to the slinky sultry way she moves about the screen, Lilith is a complex woman, she herself has seen the devil and lived to tell the tale reemerging on the other side a much stronger version of herself, one that can hold her own against the men that threaten to destroy her.
I’m not going to lie, the film is a tad bit long with a run time of 155 mins. The first half of the film is quite slow moving and I feel like it definitely could have been shortened by a good 20 mins still there is enough there to feast the eyes on that you can almost forgive the lag. This is one of those movies where every scene is packed with so many details that if you were to watch it a 2nd or 3rd time, you're bound to notice something new.
Del Torro stated that he was really wanting to tell a story of destiny and humanity, unfortunately it’s a bleak one for these characters as they are stuck in a world that is ruthless, where people are not capable of seeing the good in themselves let alone others. People use people, they destroy each other with their lies. They are pained and floored. We watch as Stan will stop at nothing to be on top, and much like the house in the beginning, his world to will end in ashes and his own fate must be accepted.