A noir drenched descent into exploitation and trickery
Nightmare alley by Guilermo Del Toro is the latest adaptation of William Lindsay’s original novel of the same name. The story follows Stanton Carlisle, a fraudster mystic who is thrust into an escalating noir thriller of his own creation as he continuously sheds any moral decency in favour of twisted charisma that he uses to peddle false miracles and push his luck, or scams further. The first act establishes the recurring theme of master and subordinate or as the films categorises them ‘ringmaster’ and ‘geek’. It starts at the travelling carnival that provided him a home for an extended period of time while he developed his skills at trickery in the company of a gang of strangers bound together by the common faith of exploitation. Using this decrepit playground to kick off Stan’s story and establish the core ideas continuously examined in the rest of the film.
Exploitation is the name of the game in nightmare alley. In the narrative of nightmare alley characters fall into roles. Geek (referring to an exploited person turned sideshow attraction through manipulation and exploitation of vice) and the self explanatory master figure who abuses the control. Under this context the relationships and underlying subtext of the film becomes more interesting. Although not every dynamic is obviously under this guise it’s an ever present subtext which added a rich layer of intrigue to the story and greatly furthered the themes present. Like the relationships Stanton forms are in themselves forged counterfeits of actual human attachment. His selfish inclinations outweigh his base human decency making him a monster to blind to recognise that he was the Geek of the story all along. The idea of control and carefully crafted dependence makes the tense plot threads more tantalising and the huge cast of characters even more dynamic. The malicious ideas and attributes stretches a sheen of grime over the entire cast and makes the viewer analyse any action or line of dialogue for a hint of manipulation creating an atmosphere and viewing experience that fully captures the depravity of the story.
All this would completely fall flat if the character himself who was brought to life by Bradley Cooper who completely sells the sleazy snake charmer’s complex cyclical downfall. Although he is the clear stand out, the other cast members such as Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett and even Ron Pearlman and Willem Defoe all give fantastic performances. All of them populate Del Toros carnival aesthetic fairgrounds and high class 1930’s cities with some great colour and life.
Muted greens of decay and stagnation fringe on the frame highlighting the inevitable corrosion of its band of carnival misfits. Their underlying insecurities and malicious attitudes bleed out into a tangible image which perfectly contradicts the golden tinted art deco apartments. Production design takes focus as Del Toro physically crafts atmospheric locales both faithful to the setting and consistently cinematic.
Although he isn’t able to flex his signature patent for impressive creature design he uses practical effects and impressive makeup to destroy the human body contorting it into a mangled and bloodied mess more akin to said creatures than an actual human.
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