Guillermo del Toro, known primarily for his work in grounded fantasy and horror, returns with a mostly "normal" movie. There's no fish-men, no boys from hell, no goat-creatures living in labyrinths. There is a large fetus with a third eye on its forehead, floating in a jar, but spoiler alert, it never speaks. No, instead, it is the subject of a story, about how Enoch, the baby, killed his mother at birth. Whether the story is true or not, Enoch becomes that story, peddled to any passerby morbidly curious about this freak in a jar.
Because "Nightmare Alley" is about the freaks and the stories that follow them. In del Toro's prior work, the freaks are vilified for their physical appearance despite their kind or magnanimous nature. He has always found the beauty in the ugliness, though I doubt he would ever call his creatures ugly. In "Nightmare Alley", del Toro is searching for the ugliness in the beauty. The characters this time are gorgeous, they shine with their easy smiles, they seduce, they charm. But beneath their beguiling veneer, lie beasts.
Del Toro's vision of truth and lie is completed by a stellar cast, either keeping their secrets close, or making their inner selves known. Our protagonist, Bradley Cooper's Stan, sits firmly on one end of this spectrum. We know nothing about Stan, despite spending most of our time with him. At the carnival that "Nightmare Alley" ostensibly starts in, there're characters from across del Toro's spectrum. There is Rooney Mara's innocent Molly or Ron Perlman's curmudgeonly Bruno, who see no shame in hiding their wants or needs. There's Toni Colette's cunning Zeena and Willem Dafoe's plotting Clem, each of whom carefully invites Stan into their private lives.
And just when we think we know what "Nightmare Alley" is going to be about, we meet Cate Blanchett's mysterious Dr. Lilith. And then after that, there's the desperate Judge Kimball, the paranoid Ezra Grindle, Ezra's stoic bodyguard, Anderson, the grieving Mrs. Kimball. We have left the carnival behind, and are dropped into the real world. And now Stan's parlour tricks have mortal stakes.
In the city, noir mixes with Greek tragedy as Stan's meteoric rise begins. Actions, and their consequences, lies, and their fallout, become the name of the game. It's here, an hour into the movie, when "Nightmare Alley" really begins. And frankly, it was bordering on overdue. I was never bored by that first hour, but I was wondering where we were heading. And when Stan's journey picks up, in hindsight, the film's carnival section felt like ornamentation. Beautiful, intricately designed, thematically relevant ornamentation, but still, decoration. I would have felt less rootless if we understood more about Stan, but in that early section of the film, we are given very little to work with. Stan hides everything from everyone, including us. It's by design, but it may not be inviting to less patient audiences.
But anyone who has the patience will see the seeds of the carnival grow into thick thorny vines, entrapping Stan in his schemes. Because at a point, you will know what will happen. Predictability is not at all a detriment on a film's story though; how that story is presented is far more important. And every bit of "Nightmare Alley" is presented in lush detail. Like I said, I was unsure of the film's direction in the carnival. But the carnival itself was a sight to behold. Jars of preserved fetuses lining the wall, an electric chair built upon a stage, a drinker's den below that stage. By the time we leave the carnival, we feel as if we could walk through it ourselves. Though the city does not have this same sense of intimacy, it has that same level of detail — Dr. Lilith's psychoanalyst's office in particular is a marvel, where Art Deco meets Sigmund Freud. The cinematography does not rest on its laurels; every shot is clearly meticulously placed to get the best light (and the best shadows) striking across the characters' faces. All of this gives "Nightmare Alley" an old-timey feel, like it was a movie shot in black-and-white, and then coloured over. Even Enoch, floating in his pickle juice, is a beautiful sight under del Toro's lighting.
Enoch is the only character in "Nightmare Alley" that never gets to speak. Yet, he still becomes a story, told to others about himself. And that's what each element of this film is doing. The carnival is designed to highlight the eccentricity for its viewers, Dr. Lilith's office is meant to create a sense of calm. The stark lighting obscures the eye but reveals the mouth. The actor's smile says nothing beneath their empty eyes. As Stan's tricks remind us, the stories we tell aren't just in our words. They live in our clothes, our tics, our bodies. But as Stan learns, knowing another person's story doesn't mean you're any closer to your truth. No, it means that your lies are hidden even to you. And, one day, a carnival barker will be telling your story over the megaphone, about the monster you kept hidden all along.