Nightmare Alley

5 out of 5

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

There are “effective” movies in which no shot is wasted – they all have purpose – and there are directors / films in which their every shot is wonderfully composed. While I’m not saying these are the only two visual categories, I highlight them as categories in which what you’re watching has thought beyond it, from production through to the edit, whether that thought is to get the most budget-happy, pared down 88-minute take, or to perfectly capture some fever dream visual. Crossover between these two is rare; an effective movie may not necessarily be a pretty one, and vice versa. A movie in which every shot is both of these things – a 150 minute movie in which that’s the case – makes me want to tell every other director to get the heck outta town. I mean, not really, but that’s the spell that’s cast by Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley (a presentation of the source book as opposed to a remake of the prior film), and that fittingly matches with the film’s following of carny-man Stan Carlisle’s (Bradley Cooper) evolution from handyman to consummate swindler, enrapturing us with the same kind of tale-telling skill Stan uses on his eventual marks.

While I’ve followed del Toro’s works for a good chunk of years now, joining the party with Hellboy, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen as perfect a film from him as Nightmare Alley, and it’s interesting that his most singular-genred flick – it is exclusively a noir thriller, no ghosts or fantasy lands hanging about – would result in that, when the director’s visual imagination with such supernatural elements has very much encouraged his unique status amongst a current crop of auteurs. But I think the benefit is when Guillermo has borders guiding him: Pan’s Labyrinth, for example, has a very clear reality / fantasy outline which helped to make it one of his strongest works; and Nightmare Alley is strict – it’s a linear tale of Stan’s rise and fall, and not played against the carnival background as much as one might assume of the director. It is absolutely a visual feast, but in how controlled it is, with, as mentioned, no shot wasted on unneeded movement or coverage, and simply stunning production design that’s also wholly believable – where the muddy, rundown carnival show pales against the glitter and enormity of the big city to which Stan eventually takes his act.

I haven’t caught up with Cooper’s film work (beyond voicing Rocket Raccoon) since, uh, Limitless, so I know others have been clued into this quite before me, but his performance here is astounding, no trace of the actor behind Stan’s calculated friendliness; his warm smile and cold eyes. The same goes for everyone else in this ensemble, Cate Blanchett in particular – playing a variation on a femme fatale, as psychologist Lillith, who becomes wrapped up in Stan’s plottings – but all around, del Toro is casting that same aforementioned spell, and there’s not a beat when you catch someone hamming it up, and a set or scene that indulges in visuals over immersion. Watch all of the places del Toro (with editor Cam McLauchlin) cuts or doesn’t; how often the camera drifts, but only just so far, to capture exactly the information you need. How d.p. Dan Laustsen assists in making sure the mood is inherent in every shot. Nightmare Alley is a tale in which you can likely predict where its script is going, but you want to hear and see it go there; at several points I could call out dialogue before it happened, but still shuddered – affected – as it was delivered, up through the haunting final line.

And not to sell the film short on impact, while most of del Toro’s previous films have used their fantastical natures to explore the balance / war of hope and failings in the human condition, Nightmare Alley doesn’t cut away. I think the director got somewhat mis-aligned as a horror director early on, when those initial films – Cronos, Devil’s Backbone – had more of a contemplative spirit than an outright scary one. In later, more flourished projects – Pan, Crimson Peak – it sometimes felt like he forcibly inserted some visceral moments in order to elevate a sense of tragedy onto the movie, when that may not have been supported by everything else on screen. But again, with the guidelines of the story, there’s no dressing this up: it is a downbeat tale, and does not shy away from that. It is committed to that, and delights in twisting the knife, as with the best of noirs, while also pulling back the curtain on recognizable cycles of defeat. Del Toro still, of course, inserts visual poetry and layers throughout, but it’s perfectly blended into the mastery I’ve mentioned several times: we’re not pausing to swoop out for some revelatory image, but rather finding out way to them as part of the amazing storytelling.

I would almost say I didn’t blink during this entire film, but obviously that’s not true; I just wish I hadn’t, not wanting to miss a single second. From the pacing, to the storytelling, to the look, to the acting, Nightmare Alley is simply one of the most complete films I have ever seen, and does make me want to revisit del Toro’s past works to reappreciate them, while I wait to see what he does from here.