By Ben Konuch
“When a man believes his own lies, he believes he has too much power. He’s got shut-eye. Because now, he believes it’s all true.”
When does ambition become obsession? What is the line between deceit and reality?
These are the central questions of “Nightmare Alley”, a drama / thriller directed by Guillermo del Toro. A remake of a 1947 film of the same name, this “Nightmare Alley” is a dark journey into the mind of a carnival man with a skill for deception. Set in the 1940’s, the film takes its time with its characters and plot, slowly setting up a tragic tale with a jaw-dropping finale that tells a message worth listening to.
The film stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a drifter with a dark past who ends up joining a traveling carnival. While there, he discovers a knack for deception and showmanship. Years later in Chicago, he rebrands his act to wow the rich elite of society with the help of his sweetheart Molly, but constantly pushes the boundaries of his act, turning what was once an innocent carnival trick into a “spookshow” meant to frighten and manipulate his audience. When he meets corrupt psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchet), he uses that desire to push further to stage a deception the likes of which he’s never done before – with little regard to who might get hurt or what he may lose.
Even from the film’s beginning, del Toro subtly weaves in a sense of distrust about Carlisle, and Cooper’s nuanced portrayal of him adds to this wonderfully. Throughout all of “Nightmare Alley’s” first act, we know very little about Carlisle’s past or his motivations, but there are enough hints that imply something dark. By the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2, it’s clear that Carlisle is going to be both the protagonist and the antagonist of his own story.
The web of lies that envelops these characters is memorizing to watch.
The film enraptures you in the story of Stanton Carlisle and the world that del Toro created through standout performances and great filmmaking. “Nightmare Alley” isn’t just an entertaining story, it’s also a movie that is hard to look away from, even in slower scenes. The film is a tribute to its time period and is crafted with a distinct noir style that’s full of stylistic art-deco sets and has an odd, haunting feel. “Nightmare Alley” somehow manages to simultaneously be both grounded and surreal, all adding to its unsettling tale of deceit.
This tale, and its moral lesson, serves as the anchor for “Nightmare Alley”. Stanton Carlisle is not a good man, and as he discovers his skill for deceiving people and giving them what they want, he develops a taste for power. Early in the film, Pete, the mastermind behind the clairvoyant act that Carlisle inherits, warns our main character about the dangers of deception. He tells Carlisle that deception is a dangerous game, and eventually, even you will start to believe the lies that you tell, and when that happens, your reality shatters along with everyone and everything in it.
Molly is one of Carlisle’s only constants – both in terms of relationships and a moral center.
Carlisle can never get enough and as he continually reaches out for what he doesn’t possess, he risks losing the important things he does have. These actions are all too human of Carlisle, and are representative of actions that we ourselves take every day. Many people are discontent and pursue what they don’t have. Every one of us has used some form of lying or misleading to change people’s minds or the outcome of events. Stanton Carlisle’s tale is all the more terrifying, because when it comes down to it, it’s deeply human. The actions of Carlisle are extreme versions of flaws that everyday people commit.
The unsettling feelings from certain scenes come from both the events themselves and Carlisle’s responses to them.
As powerful as this message is, it would be worthless if the film didn’t utilize it in a way that is still entertaining. It’s very much a slow paced movie, but del Toro proves that slow doesn’t always equate to boring. There’s almost always some conflict or some mystery unfolding to the audience, whether it be in the plot or in the backstories of its characters. Unfortunately, there is a twenty minute period in Act 2 of the film that seems to slightly flounder. Looking back, you’ll be able to see what the film was setting up in that time, but for the audience coming straight out of the excitement and intrigue of Act 1, it may seem almost like the film briefly has an unclear focus, which could be discouraging to viewers.
Everything comes together in the end, though, as “Nightmare Alley” ends with an intense and shocking finale that answers all of its questions and hammers home its moral lesson. The final scene of the film also has one of the single best pieces of acting that I’ve ever seen in Bradley Cooper’s last scene as Stanton Carlisle, and I don’t say that lightly. All in all, “Nightmare Alley” is a gripping tale of crime, deceit, and deception. For those willing to have patience with it’s slower pacing and setup, you’ll be rewarded with a movie and a finale that will stick with you for a long time.
I give “Nightmare Alley” a 9/10.
‘Nightmare Alley’ is currently playing in theaters.
Ben Konuch is a freshman strategic communications student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and failing horribly at wallyball with his friends.