The film opens with a man hiding and burning a body. He wanders into a circus sideshow and watches as the Geek (usually a broken alcoholic driven to animalistic desperation) performs his ghoulish routine. Director Guillermo del Toro’s camera never cuts away, ensuring that some viewers won’t make it beyond the first 10 minutes. Those who go on must look into the not-so-funhouse mirror that reflects our capacity for evil.
Nightmare Alley is an appropriate title for a story that makes us feel closed in, where everything is dreamy, yet the only direction is down.
Bradley Cooper plays the man, Stanton Carlisle, and the time is the late 1930s through the eve of the Second World War. Shortly after joining the circus he’s taken in by a team of mentalists (people who demonstrate feats of precognition, clairvoyance, etc), Zeena and Pete (Toni Collette and David Strathairn, respectively), and schooled in their techniques. While mentalism is primarily signals and codes, deduction and manipulation, there is a line: a “spook show,” pretending to communicate with the dead, is strictly off limits.
From the opening image and throughout, we see how Carlisle destroys whatever he touches. Even as he shows kindness to the Geek and falls in love with fellow performer Molly (Rooney Mara), it’s clear that this amoral man doesn’t care about boundaries when they inhibit his ambition.
“Everyone wants to be seen, everyone wants to be found out,” is said several times. But what I heard was, “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23b). Carlisle is skilled at hiding his sins while revealing everyone else’s secrets. When he teams up with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist with her own agenda, even he can’t hide. They contrive a spook show to break a man and make themselves rich. Or so Carlisle thinks.
All of this is played out on colorful and sumptuous sets. Nightmare Alley is vivid in story and presentation, with dark shadows and golden hues. The beautiful compositions make the jolts of extreme violence that much more shocking.
While del Toro is known for his creature features, the only monsters here are human. Except for a tarot reading, there’s nothing directly of the occult this time, although Lilith shares her name with a demon from Jewish mythology. That’s no coincidence. Everyone on screen has something to hide, and they are as accountable to us, the audience, as we are before God. “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13).
The value in stories like this is that they don’t allow us to hide from ourselves. We have to ask, if we were in the same situation, would we do anything different? In the closing moments, I found myself with a new thought: “There but for the grace of God go I.” And I was thankful. (Rated R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language. Searchlight Pictures)