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Oscars 2022: ‘Nightmare Alley’ Review: A gothic neo-noir thriller

Nightmare Alley - 'Guillermo del Toro'

Infusing each and every one of his signature films with a strong dose of gothic romance and mysterious allure, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has grown to become one of the industry’s most beloved assets, famed for his elaborate creatures and fairytale stories. Having won Best Picture for his magical Hollywood love story The Shape of Water, del Toro has received further praise for his follow-up Nightmare Alley, touching on similar favourite themes of human complexity, without the need for fantasy infusion. 

Taking his style to a travelling carnival in the era of pre-WWII America, del Toro feels as though he’s always occupied this space, with the vibrant vintage shows and looming domed tents feeling perfectly apt for his gothic form of storytelling. Often drab and overcast, the carnival is a breeding ground for deceit, treachery and bravado, making it the perfect location to host the director’s intricate psychological drama. 

With a large overcoat and black fedora, Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle wanders the carnival and ponders participation, watching impressive electrical performances as well as inhumane ‘geek shows’ involving an imprisoned, mentally deranged man biting the head off a chicken. Enamoured with the talents of Rooney Mara’s Molly Cahill, he joins the eccentric carnival and starts an act of his own as a psychic, eventually leaving the travelling show to pursue bigger and more prosperous dreams. 

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Concealing a dark history, Carlisle is an intriguing enigma with the charm to carry the film and encourage empathy as well as the immorality to deceive the viewer and create quite the climactic quandary. Helping to craft an intricate and compelling tale of a fractured personal identity, Cooper’s performance buoys the leggy film and retains constant interest, with his omission from the Best Actor category at the 94th Academy Awards being a surprising and significant snub.

Distilling his fantasy curiosity within the container of a peculiar and grotesque ‘pickled punk,’ del Toro rightly shelves his trademark to pursue a story with as much intrigue and mystery as many of his magical fairy tale stories. Capturing a moody yet beautiful moment in American history that shortly predates WWII, del Toro swirls a cauldron of trickery, trepidation and gothic romance punctuated by its striking costumes, seductive makeup and mesmeric set design. 

Creating a neo-noir identity that whiffs of the pessimism of the forthcoming Second World War, Nightmare Alley becomes a truly captivating psychological mystery, charmed by the rich ensemble cast of characters. Whilst the magic and witchery of the carnival is realised by the glamour of such characters as Toni Collette’s Zeena and Willem Dafoe’s slimy Clem Hoatley, even outside of the circus’ fabric walls, del Toro’s world pulsates with curiosity, typified by Cate Blanchett’s Dr. Lilith Ritter and Richard Jenkins’ Ezra Grindle. 

World-building is, after all, what del Toro does best, though it’s the moody characters he lets roam this landscape that allow the film to flourish so well. Transfixed with ‘finding people out’ and reading a subject’s body language, Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle beguiles the viewer, leading us on his own path of self-discovery that leads him on a path of gruesome self-discovery and a moral tale that is oh-so del Toro.