How Nightmare Alley Casts An Alluring Spell

Photo: Searchlight Pictures.

The older I get, the more I turn into my father. That’s a theme most men can relate to that’s been dramatized cinematically for a very long time. What makes this movie’s daddy issues stand above the others is the talent of Guillermo del Toro. He’s the love child of Tim Burton, with a similar cinematic passion for gothic horror. Yet Del toro manages to tackle different themes, never making the same movie twice, while Mr. Burton is stuck in the ’90s. It’s what makes him opposite to the Wes Anderson’s of the world. He can be commercial, or he could be artistic. Could you imagine Anderson direct Blade II?

Nightmare Alley’s story is conventional in almost every way. What separates it from any Hollywood movie is how complex its protagonist is. Stanton Carlisle isn’t a good person, but his charm fooled me. Mr. Carlisle uses trickery as a means of manipulating people for financial benefit. The first time we see Stanton, he’s down on his luck but is easy on the eyes, so he fits right in with any crowd.

Image Courtesy
Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle hypnotizes us with his foolery

It doesn’t take long for Stan to become close friends with all the local carnies. Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn) teach Stan the means of fabricated mind reading for profit. Molly (Rooney Mara) is an impressionable attractive young woman who uses sadomasochism via electricity to attract paying customers. Soon Stan and Molly hook up then flee the carnival so they can live happily ever after until things turn into a Nightmare.

The long two-and-a-half-hour runtime is purposeful for Bradley Cooper to wow the audience. His performance I didn’t think much of initially. But then I thought about it more and soon, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’m going to sound like a snobby critic myself, but to hell with it, the film is hypnotic. For a proper spell to work, you must be enchanted by the magician. It’s explicitly clear that Stanton is a fraud, yet halfway through the film, Cooper’s palpable intensity draws you into his act.

When the downfall comes, it hits hard. The alluring charisma Mr. Carlisle had before loses its luster. Now, we see a pathetic raging madman. Stanton is warned not to do a spook show yet doesn’t heed Pete’s words. The ghosts of the past haunt Stanton Carlisle yet not in a physical form.

Image Courtesy of
Stanton Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) brings Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) to his act despite with the assistance of his wife Molly (Rooney Mara)

The world of Nightmare Alley is set in ours. No spirits are haunting us, just our guilt. Stanton lives with that remorse, so he uses it to his advantage by fake channeling the dead. When Stanton first joins the circus, he’s attacked by a man in a cage. After defending himself, Stanton beats the man half to death when he doesn’t need to. There’s a plant of a heartless rage that Stanton manages to contain, which blossoms in the end. Despite the early warnings, Stanton takes his skills as a medium to the extremes bringing out the worst in his participants.

The spook shows are live therapy sessions that wield people’s emotions in humiliating public displays. Everyone’s deepest secrets come out around total strangers. Soon one patron no longer becomes someone Stanton can toy with, and our protagonist is tricked in a predictable twist.

Yet, I don’t mind the predictability since the movie’s cinematic allure is gorgeous. Mr. Del Toro has an eye unlike anyone else’s. The way he plays with rain pouring down on a gloomy blue night is a trope he’s used a thousand times because he does it so darned well. His style calls attention to itself but plays its way into haunting the viewer with its lush colors and gliding camera.

After seeing the film, I discovered from another critic that this is actually a remake. I’m glad I didn’t know that walking into this film or my opinion could have swayed if seen the 1951 picture. The character of Stanley Carlisle is enticing enough to keep its hooks on me throughout the story. There were occasional moments where I did indeed feel the two and half hours length, causing my brain to doze off for a bit until a bang snapped back my attention towards a thrilling, resentful and heartbreaking ending.

Although I should hate Stanton Carlisle at the end of the story, I pity him. Like so many other men, he probably wasn’t born evil but molded that way by his father. Over time we begin to see Stanton turn into his old man. Mr. Carlisle is a man whose journey to self-discovery is fascinating because of how meticulous it is in script and screen. A film can tell the same story, but it’s all dependent on how it’s told that separates it from a predictable piece of drama to a memorable one. From the structure to the look, Guillermo del Toro is a master of his craft who creates a character study that left a spell on me.

Written by Mike Crowley

Mike Crowley is a full member of the Chicago Indie Critics. He periodically produces video content for and writes weekly film reviews for his publication You'll Probably Agree. He also writes content for Film Obsessive from time to time. You can follow him on Twitter, Tik Tok, and Instagram @ypareviews

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