In an interview with Mike Ryan at Uproxx, Guillermo del Toro asserts, and Ryan emphasizes by putting the fact at the top of the article, that the Oscar-winning director is not remaking the 1947 Nightmare Alley. Rather, he’s adapting William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, which had many of its sharper “psychosexual” elements neutered in Edmund Goulding’s film of the same name a year later. “It was done during the code,” del Toro clarifies. Then he just comes out and says it: “So they really circumvented a lot of stuff that was pretty brutal in a good way.”
For nearly 30 years, Del Toro has given us the grotesque on a silver platter, spotlighting gothic horror and cosmic adventure and sci-fi gloop and all of his favorite genre fiction as he walks the line between fantasy and misery. Most recently, The Shape of Water saliently expressed del Toro’s storytelling perspective, for the most part, folding murder and cold war politics and bestiality into a Universal Monster fairy tale. Corruption will always threaten the child-like realm of dreams, apparently, and del Toro seems bent on branding that particular fascination. Stuff can get brutal, but “in a good way.”
If you’re familiar with Nightmare Alley, or with the differences between Gresham’s novel and Goulding’s less starkly bleak film, you’re likely to guess how, for the most part, del Toro does anything but circumvent the original’s brutality. The story of a smoldering drifter, Stan (Bradley Cooper), with a knack for manipulation and stage craft—del Toro’s version, written with partner Kim Morgan—presents the carnival as a microcosm of America at the dawn of World War II and on the brink of chaos. Stan shacks up with the aforementioned sideshow racket, learning the nuances of geek-taming from gravelly proto-carny Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe), gaining the trust of old-hand mesmerists Zeena (Toni Collette) and her wet-drunk husband Pete (David Strathairn), and gaining the distrust of carnival strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman returning to the showbiz womb) because he’s falling in love with ingenue Molly (Rooney Mara), whom Bruno has sworn to protect from the various casual, roaming evils of this changing world (i.e., Stan).
Under Zeena and Pete’s tutelage, Stan learns a secret speaking code that inevitably propels him, with Molly as his lovely assistant and young wife, to stages before wealthier and wealthier audiences. Soon he’s amazing society’s elite with psychic readings and personal seances, making boatloads of cash by tricking a bunch of rich slobs still reeling from the first World War, even as the second closes in. Molly, the movie’s sole-sourced innocent, grows increasingly concerned with Stan’s willingness to forego any moral decision-making, but she’s also unaware he’s been meeting with high-class psychiatrist Dr. Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who has easy access to her very rich and influential patients’ most personal—most valuable—secrets, most notably those of rich old monster Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a man with a violent past and too much money not to believe in ghosts, and so on. Genre expectations and del Toro’s masochism (but in a good way) necessitates that all will go sour. And so on.
Though Bradley Cooper is a bit more submerged in his character than Tyrone Power was, del Toro uses his hunky A-lister in much the same way Goulding employed Power, witnessing a pretty face not just go against character, but seemingly devolve in spite of it. Were this not a post-Jackson-Maine world, we may be more surprised by Cooper’s transformation into a man made of bourbon. Similarly, Blanchett acts the commanding fatale, her chemistry with Cooper enough to forgive how little the film’s concerned with any other characters, or with characters at all. Blanchett at times seems immobile, or Rooney Mara an empty vessel, or Jenkins a blandly villainous magnate, or Cooper overcompensating for how on-rails the plot becomes, their inner lives just so much less vibrant than the world del Toro carefully creates around them.
Everything appears crafted to present a morality tale of grand sweep, to be old-fashioned but intricate and tactile, unafraid to peer unblinkingly into the darkness where Goulding and the 1947 film dare not stray. Del Toro respects the story’s noir roots, his Nightmare Alley an unendingly handsome menagerie of chiaroscuro and murky weather, of dirty rooms and damp holes, of offices in art deco at the border of modernism, of outcasts and femme fatales and double-crossings, of scumbums and psychopaths, of ordinary human lives crushed under the heel of an ascending industrialist class. Meanwhile, historical context drops in blatantly, especially as the trajectory of Stan’s fortune mirrors the world’s descent into the senselessness of World War II. But that’s all it is—a reflection of the narrative, something that Stan even comments upon without incident. The context, however much of it there is, affects little, and the whole film begins to resemble a fetish object more than an adaptation. In a bad way.
Del Toro’s ending, taken from the novel, is a much more “life sucks and then you die” conclusion than the 1947 film’s, predictably. Del Toro also forecasts the ending so much more clumsily than Goulding’s film, so that as Stan sweatily stumbles into the conclusion you knew was coming, the inevitability of it all rings hollowly. It rings retroactively throughout Nightmare Alley too, revealing a lack at its core. In attempting to preserve the brutality of the original story, del Toro presents the grotesque grotesquely—for the sake of itself, enjoying itself, getting all up in and writhing around inside itself. Early in the film, Willem Dafoe’s Clem introduces Stan to a frightening sideshow spectacle, a deformed stillborn fetus in a jar, a bulbous third eye growing from the center of the forehead. In one image, del Toro manifests the disgusting nature of human exploitation, a theme never far from del Toro’s heart. But then his gaze seems fixed to this upsetting, bloated jar fetus. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen drenches that brined baby in swoony portent, its third eye milky and wrong. Del Toro must see the child again. He romanticizes it. In fact, Del Toro loves it so much, the film’s immediate closing credits involve the close-up safari of the CGI fetus, the camera taking a tour of the little wrinkled body in painful detail. The baby is perhaps a portal to another spiritual realm, a being existing between realities—like the outcasts of classic noir, navigating the fringes of a transforming urban nightmarescape—or the baby is just a thing that is gross. Del Toro may not know the difference. In a bad way.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Ron Perlman, Willem Dafoe
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter.