“Take a look at yourself, sinner.”
That sign in a carnival funhouse should be a warning to viewers of Nightmare Alley, the latest film from Guillermo del Toro, that we may be judged by what we see here. We may think this is a distorted reflection, but perhaps it just shows our blemishes in new light.
Del Toro’s films (e.g., Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape of Water) make use of magical realism and fantasy to explore our dark parts of our nature, Nightmare Alley relies on the hyper-realism of noir. The film creates contrasting worlds that allow us to see good and evil, truth and lie in the life of a drifter whose ambition leads him to greatness—and to a great fall.
Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) comes across a traveling carnival, and having nothing, manages to become part of the group led by Clem (Willem Dafoe). While carnies are generally seen as lowlifes, we see this as a true community. The people care for one another. No one cares where you came from or what you look like, as long as you do your part. In spite of this sense of community, there is the constant presence of the “geek”, an act that abuses an addicted man Clem forces to act a mindless beast, eating live chickens.
Stan first connects with Zora (Toni Collette), who is the carnival’s psychic act, and her husband Pete (David Strathairn), who used to do a mentalist act, but now spends too much time in the bottle. Stan begins to learn the tricks that go into reading people and the code that Pete and Zora used in the act.
Stan is attracted to Molly (Mara Rooney), another of the carnival people, and soon she buys into his dream of taking his own mentalist act on the road. This is when we first see Stan’s ambition begin to grow. He wants more than just a carny life. In time they head off to the big time where Stan has a nightclub act. This is a very different world. This is the world of money and society. But we soon discover there are different kinds of freaks in this world. While they may look normal, they have their secrets and their anxieties.
When he meets Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a high society psychologist, he uses her to get access to some of the top society people so he can take advantage of their desires and fears. But Lilith can play this game at least as well as Stan. The chemistry may seem sexual between them, but the temptation is not so much carnal as it is spiritual. Their connection has a dark power that grows out of their times together. In time, Stan’s ambition, greed, and hubris will bring all of this crashing down.
The contrasting worlds that Stan moves through (with Molly loyally following) may reverse our thoughts of what is a good life, of what is true and honorable, of human nature. The role of geek is constantly in the background. When we hear Clem barking about that sideshow attraction, he poses the question of if he is man or beast. The real question is what are we? Clem tells Stan how you get someone to do that. (It’s not a pretty story.) We watch as Stan manipulates Molly, as Stan manipulates his marks, and as Lilith manipulates Stan. All of those are variations on training a geek. You get them addicted to something, and they will do anything to get it. And it will ultimately lead to degradation.
While this may be the most realistic of del Toro’s films, it is, like his others, very like a fairy tale. Those stories were not about entertainment alone. They also were meant to teach important lessons about our world and our nature. One of those tales that the Grimm Brothers recorded was “The Fisherman and His Wife”. In it a magical fish grants the fisherman’s wife’s wishes that grow grander and grander, until she goes one step too far. We watch as Stan keeps grasping for more and more. And we know that in time, he will have to pay. And what a price it is.
Nightmare Alley is in general release.
Photos courtesy of 20th Century Studios.