Moral stories nowadays are a sort of lost art. While usually blunt with their messaging, these types of stories managed to always be effective due to their bluntness in telling its audience what was good and what was bad. Even so, these moral stories that always eventually ended on proving that the good path was the only path always had a nastiness residing under its holier than thou message. As most of them usually turn out, the protagonist only learns their lessons through terrifying or traumatic ordeals. However, in lieu of straight to the heart messaging, most recent films have dared the viewer to sit in a sort of moral grey area where good and evil may not be as distantly related as one would think. In Guillermo Del Toro’s lush NIGHTMARE ALLEY, an adaption of a novel by William Lindsay Gresham (which was itself adapted initially in 1947), the bad guys are front and center here, with a strong and violent lesson in ethical carny practices waiting for them towards at its bitter end.
The example to be made of is that of the mysterious Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a quiet drifter who lands himself in the arms of a traveling carnival/freak show in 1940’s America. In the film’s first half Stanton is allowed by the carnival’s ringleader, Clem (Willem Dafoe), to shack up with the traveling crew in exchange for manual labor, which ranges from collecting customers money at flunky carny games and shows or brutally “managing” some of the troupe’s more vicious acts. During this first act, Del Toro crafts a familiar world of well realized ghouls and geeks, working with his production crew and costume department to visualize a crumbling roadshow act barely trying to conceal its less than savory truths. In these dark and dirty business operations, NIGHTMARE ALLEY’s first half harbors the most intriguing mysteries and world building as Stanton slowly but surely comes along in finding his own unique talent among the company’s freaks and curiosities. Shifting in moments from a sort of unique “family” picture, to a brutal and mysterious carnival mystery, and even towards a quiet love story that blooms between Stanton and the shy Molly (Rooney Mara), this half of the movie makes for the more entrancing section as one can feel the love that Del Toro harbors towards decayed places filled with lowdown people looking to make ends meet.
Eventually, Stanton begins to find his footing as one of the carnival’s premiere act as a sort of fortune teller where, thanks to some hokey tricks garnered off a former and burnt out fortune teller played by David Strathairn, the man allegedly is able to talk to the dead and predict the future. Soon becoming a nationwide phenomenon, Stanton begins to get bigger gigs and bigger marks, one of which turns out to be a brutal entrepreneur played by Richard Jenkins, who sees Stanton’s “gift” as a tool to overcome his brutal past sins. As he struggles to keep his lies and sleight of hands straight in the face of vicious thugs, Stanton also gets into dark moral dealings with a pessimistic psychiatrist played by Cate Blanchett, who physically and verbally takes naturally to the femme fatale role of her uneasy character. Taking on the cowl of a film noir in this latter half, Del Toro at times seems to be uncertain with playing in this area as his penchant for creating eye-catching monsters and spectacles is mitigated towards the more humdrum monsters of “violent, pissed off rich guys”. While Mr. Jenkins surprisingly sells his character’s bubbling brutality (even if those moments constantly reminded me of his character’s outbursts in the comedic STEP BROTHERS), his off-putting antagonist, like the film’s entire second half, feels less realized than the film’s much more enticing first half.
Nevertheless, no matter which part of the film you find yourself in, Del Toro’s visual flavor once again finds beauty in its grotesqueries. Like a stage play brought to life through its eye-catching costumes and set design, NIGHTMARE ALLEY captures a sort of dream-bordering-on-a-nightmare look that hardens the story’s retro setting. Even as the film’s noir elements can’t quite match up to its earlier carnival mysteries (and that of Stanton’s own murky past — which turns out to be rather humdrum in the grand scheme of things), the filmmaker benefits from getting some strong performances from his murderer’s row of actors. Whether on the mud covered grounds of the circus or in the slick and shiny halls of skyscrapers and mansions, performers such as Mr. Dafoe and Ms. Blanchett have a blast in revealing the dark corners of humanity rotting in the shadows of these places. At the center of it all, Mr. Cooper certainly fits the physical bill of portraying a ruggedly handsome mystery man but his real moments to shine slowly emerge throughout the film and towards its devilishly ironic ending as we see Stanton to be a man just as morally dubious as the characters he comes across. With each greedy move that Stanton makes throughout the film, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, with its chopped wholly licked, doesn’t hide the fact that our protagonist is going to get his comeuppance; it simply relishes its time and watches its hero dig his own grave and to their credit, Del Toro and Cooper, make this journey towards an “I told you so” conclusion devilishly fun.
Even as I’ve mentioned that NIGHTMARE ALLEY can’t quite maintain its quality between its two noticeable halves, the film’s story and ultimate point come to pack a mighty fine power by the time all the twists and betrayals settle into place. Like a sledgehammer to your head, NIGHTMARE ALLEY isn’t looking to really blow your mind but moreso leave it unsettled as we see karma pay off for Stanton in all the worst ways. Like any great moral fable, the horror is in the lesson learned.