“Nightmare Alley” shocks and enthralls


Art by Thea Barrows

Hannah Owens Pierre, Section Editor

Zephyrus Arts and Entertainment Editor Hannah Owens Pierre examines each Oscar Best Picture nominee in a countdown to the awards ceremony on March 27

“Nightmare Alley” is director Guillermo del Toro’s latest big-budget arthouse extravaganza, coming four years after the release of his equally creative Best Picture winner “The Shape of Water.” The psychological thriller set in the 1940s follows Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a charismatic and ambitious traveling carnival worker who teams up with a mysterious psychiatrist to carry out his swindles. 

Unlike other movies focused on old American circus culture, namely “The Greatest Showman,” “Nightmare Alley” doesn’t glamorize its subject matter. From the opening scenes showing a barely clothed, famished man dehumanized in a cage for a crowd’s entertainment, the depraved nature of the show business is made clear. The film feels scarily realistic in how unabashedly it shows the raw and disturbing true nature of show business. Willem Dafoe, who is at his best when playing psychotic, wicked souls, outdoes himself in his role as Clem, the ringleader of the circus. Clem attracts “geeks,” desperate alcoholics who are forced to bite off the heads of live animals, a disturbingly accurate staple of past carnival shows. 

“Nightmare Alley” is most interesting when it focuses on the creepy, mysterious aspects of its story. It is riveting to watch Stan learn mentalism, the art of appearing to be physic by discerning information about others through their body language and demeanor, to deceive others. 

Like the rest of his movies, “Nightmare Alley” is visually stunning. Period pieces suit del Toro’s style and allow him to invest in astonishing production design to capture the energy of bygone eras. Because it takes place in the circus, “Nightmare Alley” is particularly over the top when it comes to lavish, frightening set pieces and gorgeous costume design. Many shots feel reminiscent of the eerie stop animation “Coraline” in style. Despite its dark and depressing subject matter, the film is full of vibrant colors. It helps that the movie moves slowly, lingering on scenes to let the grand cinematography sink in. 

It’s at its worst, however, when it focuses on the romance between Stan and fellow carnie Molly (Rooney Mara). Their relationship feels like an afterthought in an otherwise well-thought-out, gripping story. Molly’s character is painfully one-dimensional and the time spent on their love story drags out the film, giving it unnatural pacing in the second half.

None of that takes away from the captivating magic of the ending, though. “Nightmare Alley” really feels like four or five epic movies packed into one, but del Toro manages to bring it full circle for one of the greatest and most startling finales in recent cinematic history. The final scenes paint the rest of the film in a new light, giving meaning to previous actions of the characters. 

It is a shame that, like many new innovative, unpredictable movies, “Nightmare Alley” bombed at the box office. One of the best del Toro movies, “Nightmare Alley” demands to be seen, preferably on a large screen.