Nightmare Alley and the Art in a Grift: Film Review

Check out our review of Nightmare Alley with our site barker, Dan McMahon!

When it comes to being tricked, cheated, or taken advantage of, most people are just afraid of when it could happen. It’s not often that you think about the how. How does the street performer make the ball vanish from under the cup? How does the magician get your wallet? That fear of the grift often doesn’t allow you to appreciate the art of it. Nightmare Alley is a film that makes you feel safe as it follows charismatic lead, Bradley Cooper, through the span of a few years. Though by the end, you realize it’s taken your keys, your wallet, and any goodwill you’ve allowed the lead to snatch from you.

Nightmare Alley is based upon the novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. The story follows Stan, played by Bradley Cooper, as he finds himself on the run and starting fresh with a group of carnies. We watch as he learns their craft, rebuilding himself completely, before leaving them in the dust with fellow performer Molly, played by Rooney Mara. They head to the big city, where we watch Stan transform yet again in another level of con-man and grifter, perils be damned.

Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

While a majority of the film does take place away from the carnival, Nightmare Alley‘s strength comes from its appreciation of the craft of showmanship and its carnival tricks. We follow alongside Stan as he is taught the art of “mind-reading” and other parlor tricks by a well-versed and traveled veteran mentalist played by David Strathairn and his fortune-teller wife, played by Toni Collette. The audience is let in on the tricks, getting to see behind the curtain of Collette and Strathairn’s act. It’s an art form that we do not often see, shown as an industrious skill, rather than something evil with malicious intent. del Toro wants the audience to see that most tools or crafts aren’t inherently evil, but it depends on what you do with them. The screenplay written by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan delivers a believable look into the dynamics of power that those tools can give. Power is a theme explored through the film, between those who have it and those who do not.

Bradley Cooper and Toni Collette in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Now before I go any further, I have to reveal a truth to you, the reader. Guillermo del Toro is my favorite director. I’m telling you this so you know that I may be biased here. This review itself could be a grift…couldn’t it? I could be using everything I’ve learned as a writer to draw you in to see Nightmare Alley because I want it to do well. I am using my power as an author to sway your opinion. But I could also be wearing my heart on my sleeve to explain why del Toro is one of the few directors who doesn’t vilify the people that society has constantly made to be the monsters.  

When I found out this movie dealt with “circus freaks” and carnies, I felt a twinge of fear. I trust del Toro to not make art that hurts people, but I’ve so often seen circus performers portrayed as less than human. Some films like The Greatest Showman that whitewash the cruelty of people like P.T. Barnum against others who weren’t what society deemed “the norm.” Guillermo del Toro doesn’t do that in the slightest within this film. What he does instead is show you the travesties that can be wrought by the people society deems acceptable.

When we are shown the “freaks” of the carnival in Nightmare Alley, we see their beauty. There are a couple of examples that stuck with me. One of which being Troy James, one of the best contortionists on Earth, performing on a small stage and accompanied by a musician. It’s not an act of the grotesque, but a hauntingly beautiful display of something that not many people can do. James’ skills are to be marveled, rather than treated as oddities like we see most films do with carnies. Troy James is often in prosthetics and make-up in films when playing monsters, but getting to see his craft in the flesh is a marvel.

The other act of humanizing carnies in Nightmare Alley is the performances by Ron Perlman as the strong man of the group and that of Mark Povinelli as The Major. Neither is ever the butt of a cheap joke in the writing and they’re given room to show their humanity behind what once was something people traveled far and wide to gawk at. Both are incredible in their roles, but I cannot go too far into detail to avoid spoiling some very wholesome scenes.

Ron Perlman and Mark Povinelli in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

As beautiful as the carnival “freaks” are shown to be, del Toro is sure to show the other side of the coin with the horrific nature of the normal carnival workers in Nightmare Alley. While Bradley Cooper’s character does take things the furthest, I would be remiss to not speak on Willem Dafoe’s performance as Clem Hoatley who is the carnival barker. It is a role only Willem Dafoe could pull off with such sinister glee as he gathers people to gawk at the carnival’s geek, which is someone who would typically bite through the flesh of living creatures. Dafoe steals almost every scene he is in with his performance that walks the razor-thin line of monstrous and jovial. There is a moment where he describes how to lure and entice someone into the role of a geek that will stick with you long after the theatre’s lights go up.

Light is a powerful thematic tool in Nightmare Alley as it can bring us deeper into the world and give insight into the themes being played with. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen has worked with del Toro on the Oscar award-winning Shape of Water and Crimson Peak prior. This time there is brilliant use of the glow of fire and the carnival lights to help shape the narrative and world in such visually beautiful ways.

Nightmare Alley is a film I haven’t stopped thinking about since I walked out of the theatre. From flipping the typical narrative about carnies, to the marvelous performances, and all the dark twists and turns in between, I was hooked. That is the point of a good grift though, isn’t it? To keep your mark coming back for more until your pockets are full of everything they had, and they leave with a big goofy grin, none the wiser.

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