You don’t fool people, Stan. They fool themselves.
Step right up. Allured by the potent, perfumed aroma of mystique and intrigue, a world built to sell our greatest hopes and our deepest fears back to ourselves. A world of thrilling attractions and beguiling supernaturalism, oddities the average person cannot, or does not want to explain. They come to be amazed, to be shocked, mouths agape with starry-eyed wonder, muscles weakening as a hokey medium reads their thoughts back to them as if they were a life changing revelation, hair standing on end as they watch electricity course harmlessly through innocent eyes, and stomachs turning as a malnourished, filthy man ravenously devours a live chicken, a sight so pitiful and shocking that their quarter has bought them a lifetime of knowing just how far they are from the most foul depths of humanity.
We sell the lie to ourselves, lies that we hold deep within the recesses of our mind and our soul. We are all, in our own way, afflicted by our pasts, wallowing in troubles just universal enough to be broadly applicable, hanging on to hope that someone will tell us that we can be forgiven, waiting for a dashing man in a mysterious blindfold with an implacable drawl to let us know that the departed are looking down on us with a smile. We buy it because we need it, a cosmic weight lifted from our chests, the guilt absolved by a preacher in communion with a devilish netherworld. But selling the lie comes with its own tipping of the cosmic scales, a debt slowly incurring with each lie sold, the interest increasing as the lies become increasingly convoluted and grand, drowning in a sea of amber and crimson as you descend back from whence you came.
Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, the inner fascinations of a man’s mind sprawled across the muck and dirt of a carnival’s grounds. Since his debut feature Cronos (1993), his mind has been consumed by the macabre, the supernatural, the way that humanity insists on placing our insecurities in the fantastic, the dredges of the psyche and mankind’s worst inclinations and violent tendencies lining worlds that long to be escaped. We all long for escape from something and del Toro has always depicted it with a deeply empathetic humanism, whether it be the looming presence of war above a haunted orphanage or the lingering weight of fascism above an overgrown labyrinth. His lens both detaches us from the world we know and shows us just how affecting and destructive reality can be.
Here, for the first time in his filmography, he steps away from the supernatural slipping its way into the fabric of our existences, instead turning to a patently false air of trickery, the intoxicating scent of manipulation. Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle isn’t far from many of del Toro’s leading men, men with tortured pasts and dark inclinations, their greed too consuming to lead them down any path of righteousness. From the film’s first moments, the crackling blaze surrounding him as he kicks a lifeless, burlap-wrapped corpse into a hole in the floorboards of a house in the wilderness, walking off into the inescapable twilight as the flames rage behind him, there’s an atmosphere of inevitability, a knowing inflection that this man’s menacing, towering ambition will soon be his downfall. He slips through the world like a specter, stumbling upon a carnival run by the devilish Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) and ending up with gainful employment without uttering a single word.
As Carlisle slowly climbs a mountain of self-aggrandizing lust and arrogant silver-tongued deception, the air grows colder, and the snow falls harder. The world is closing in on terrible men with destructive agendas, and his suave condescension grows closer to being pierced the more he looks down on everyone around him and the more the lie begins to consume him entirely. As he grows closer to enigmatic psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett in a spellbinding performance of scene-chewing goodness, captivating enough to render Carlisle the insignificantly small man he is on the inside), he begins to tumble head over heels, his avarice far beyond his control as he finds the world can be as cruel to him as he has been to others. It’s the end of the line, a station that Carlisle seemed to be barreling towards for 150 minutes, a fitting stop for his once unwavering conviction that he could swindle his way into a guilt-free life paved with blood and bone.
Nightmare Alley commands a powerful cinematic language throughout, beyond a simple surface level pastiche of noir imagery, coating Carlisle’s journey from grime and filth to opulent, gilded glamour in thick atmosphere and visuals as powerfully evocative as the narrative they serve. Dan Laustsen’s vibrant, high contrast cinematography captures an immaculately designed world that is a constant wonder to take in, del Toro’s production and costume design teams masterfully visualizing his dark fantasy. His all star cast provide an unending deluge of captivating performances, each character portrayed with such a decadent blend of mystery and rich intrigue, all displaying a façade of performance that coats dark pasts and misguided motivations. As the film drives forward with unforgiving forward motion it often gets lost in itself, as revelatory and joyous for those who came for del Toro’s particular brand of flair as it is understandably abrasive and laborious for those who may be less convinced by his work. Despite its occasional pitfalls of overwrought density it manages to craft a stunning final act that crashes down with overwhelming force, a final answer to a looming and terrifying question that has been weighing heavily from the film’s first moments.
The world is full of cruel irony, prepared to take hold the minute your grip slips, reality shattering every fiber of your backbone as the lie unravels. From peering into the depths to being hopelessly trapped within them. Time’s up.