Guillermo del Toro is commonly referred to as a “master of monsters”. A huge selling point of his most well known films is breathing life into crazy creatures in such a believable and practical way, yet these monsters are never exactly what they appear to be. More than just tools for simple scares, these creatures can reflect the darker parts of the human psychology, religion and imperfection. Films like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Pacific Rim all carry this calling card, but for his most recent film, del Toro tackles the most dangerous monster of all.
Easy layup I know, but del Toro has taken on the task of shying away from demons, fawns and Kaiju and instead focusing on the corruption of humanity by power that that should not be trifled with. Yet, there’s no real magic here; no spells of hexes that can compromise one’s morality. There is simply the innate human desire to have control of the world around you, and once you get a taste of control, it’s hard to resist going back for more.
Nightmare Alley is perhaps del Toro’s biggest departure from his comfort zone to date, yet doesn’t lack the masterful craftsmanship the director is known for. As much of a carnival ride as it’s initial setting could allow, the film is a twisting and turning descent into the horrors than man himself constructs, conducted by engaging performances, haunting noir cinematography and bleak word of warning to those who seek to fly too close to the sun while trying to avoid becoming the monster you’re destined to become.
We follow Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a drifter turned grifter who seeks work at a carnival. Stan settles into his new life as a carny, picking up tricks of the trade from a clairvoyant named Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), as well as falling in love with an electric performer named Molly (Rooney Mara). When Stan gains enough knowledge and skills to confidently perform as a psychic, Molly and him leave for the city to put on their own show for a much wealthier crowd. After encountering and aligning with a skeptic psychologist named Lilith (Cate Blanchett), Stan begins to use his talents to swindle some powerful but emotionally vulnerable people, putting his reputation and life on the line in his pursuit of wealth and power.
The film is backed by an all-star ensemble, led in no short part by Bradley Cooper. Cooper’s Stan Carlisle is believably entrancing due to his unwavering confidence, his magnetic charm and his nearly self-destructive drive for success. Stan tows the line as a snake oil salesman high off his own supply, assuming himself more and more untouchable as his scam continues to grow to lethal proportions. Seemingly carrying a corrupted heart thanks to a mysterious backstory that is kicked off with burning a body and an entire house, it’s never a question of if Stan will find redemption, but how long until he eventually crashes and burns. It takes a talent like Cooper to keep this unlikable swindler engaging through an admittedly arduous runtime, with his performance giving us a fantastic character study on greed and manipulation.
While Cooper is the undeniable shining star of the film, but it would be a disservice to neglect the impact the supporting cast has on the film. Cate Blanchett‘s Lilith is a powerful force that manages to rival Stan’s tenacity. An obvious skeptic due to her field, she immediately sees through Stan’s charade and begins to work with him while keeping ulterior motives for the long run. You get the sneaking suspicion that even though she’s helping Stan, she may just have more control over the situation than Stan suspects. Willem DaFoe‘s brief but substantial spin as the criminal carnival worker Clem is just as unsettling as you would expect. The man literally drugs unsuspecting drifters, pimping them out in his freak show as chicken-eating “geeks”. Even though we don’t get a lot of him, Clem’s influence and ideologies can be felt all the way to the very end. The same can be said for Collette’s Zeena and Strathairn’s Pete, as they don’t take up nearly as much screen time but their impact can be felt in the decisions that Stan makes. Rooney Mara’s Molly is a good performance, but her character is underutilized for an actor of her caliber and I would have liked her to have been more involved or fleshed out alongside Stan.
While there’s a distinct lack of monsters in this flick, del Toro’s trademark attention to design is felt throughout the film’s many set pieces. The carnival that the first portion of the film resides at has a familiar grimy, amber-colored motif that feels distinct to the director for sure, but when the film leaves this locale in favor of the big city is when the truly impressive architecture arises. From Lilith’s office to Richard Jenkin’s Ezra Grimble’s sprawling mansion, the scenery is a wonderful mix of del Toro’s trademark style and the distinct gaudiness of the 30s and 40s. Some of it is almost futuristic, with Metropolis-like designs decorated in gold and silver. This bit of flash never impedes on the films dark nature, as its used to tantalize in the same manner as a carrot dangling from a string. For Stan (and essentially everyone else), this flex of wealth is the end goal and ultimately the doom of those who try to take what they cannot have; the constructs of their rise and fall. The film’s noir aesthetic feels right at home here, never overtly feeling like an homage or simplistic dressing.
Despite being consistently engaging, the pacing can be absolutely trudging at times, particularly in the first hour. It’s mainly used to set up the themes and callbacks that brings everything full circle, and it doesn’t take a hard boiled detective to figure out where the film is ultimately heading. The obvious ending isn’t always the worst ending, but those expecting a bit more shock and awe may find themselves disappointed. For a nearly 3 hour long film, it feels like there’s not as much happening as one would expect. It’s certainly a patient film, but sometimes it does feel like the narrative is spinning its wheels until it gets to the next big swing in the plot.
What ultimately helped me through the run time was the the thematic brilliance of Stan’s character and the moral dilemma his motives present. Mentalism is, above all, a trick, a play on the mind of another. What the intention is can very; entertainment, financial gain, instilling hope. Stan is warned multiple times “not to do a spook show”, meaning to not go too far and give your audience answers to questions you can’t actually answer. At first, Stan scoffs at the idea because he believes he can give individuals hope even if it means lying to them about their dead family members. It eventually becomes clear Stan has either abandoned this notion or never truly believed it to begin with. By the time the very heavy handed foreshadowing comes to fruition, you’re left with not much of an answer to the moral dilemma, but more of a bleak insight into the separation of humanity from oneself. Even with a horrid hero at the helm of the story, del Toro‘s natural drive to embrace the humanity in his monsters can still be seen, even though it neither justifies their actions nor spares their fate.
Nightmare Alley is a welcomed progression to del Toro’s stylistic journey, reeling in great performances that admittedly could have been further fleshed out given the film’s long run time. Once viewers get passed the slow moving beginning, they’ll find themselves in for a treat operating on a level only a master of atmosphere and symbolism could deliver. Containing just enough pulp to resonate with past films of its kind and enough obvious symbolism to not be overtly obtuse, the film is a story of a bygone era modernized surprisingly well. It’s all worth it for that final, chilling shot that wraps up everything in a nice, depressing package. An ending we may know from the very beginning, but a solid and effective ending nonetheless.
Come and see! Come and see! Is it libation or beast? An innocent cocktail, or a slow, creeping creature that gets you when you least expect it? This is here is the Enoch, named after the biblical figure, and more importantly, that one eyed fetus daFoe’s Clem keeps inside a jar in his freak show. The drink’s amber like color draws similarities from the brine Enoch floats in, while the red ice ball represents his single, large eyeball resting on his forehead. But this isn’t just any old ice ball. No, this ice ball is also a reflection of Clem’s inhumane strategies for geekifying his geeks, slowly slipping them powerful drugs until they are no longer in their right mind and revert to a much more primitive state.
Now, Clem used opium to subdue his geeks, and while an opium cocktail does sound original, I am at a moral and legal obligation to not try to poison my viewers. So instead, I opted to use something that people once believed to be a hallucinogen: absinthe! Mixed with a bit of grenadine for color and sweetness and enough water to apply some dilution, this special ice mold doesn’t do much at first, but as it begins to melt, you’ll be able to feel and taste the powerful ingredient seeping into your cocktail. As for the drink itself, it’s a bit of an amalgamation of many popular post prohibition cocktails drank at the time. I decided to go with rye whiskey to reflect the tastes of the common working man (where Stan starts) and have it topped with champagne to represent the wealthy and powerful (where Stan ends up). Despite it’s light and bubbly appearance, never forget that there’s a deeper, darker force laying in wait.
- 1.5oz rye whiskey
- 1/2oz orange liqueur
- 1/2oz lemon juice
- Top: Champagne
- 1/2oz absinthe
- 1/2oz grenadine
- To prep for the drink, pour the absinthe and grenadine into an ice sphere mold, then fill the rest with water. Store in freezer until frozen.
- Once the ball is ready, add the whiskey, orange liqueur, and lemon juice to a shaker and shake with ice.
- Add your prepared ice sphere to the glass and strain your cocktail.
- Top with champagne.