The Oscars race is slowly unfolding, with the seeming frontrunners being many of the films that we expected to be here. In a year of immense flux in the entertainment industry, one chock full of fascinating, challenging, and often difficult movies, it’s sadly no surprise that the apparent winners-to-be are cut from the same cloth of victors’ past. (Expect lots of biopics and further exhausting discourse around Don’t Look Up.) Yet awards season isn’t always as predictable as we think it will be. To quote William Goldman, nobody knows anything, and at the end of the cycle, there are always a few movies we were certain would win big yet were left by the wayside as the season progressed. Consider Nightmare Alley (which recently came available to stream on Hulu and HBO Max).
Having taken home Best Director and Best Picture for his previous film, The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro was positioned as an inevitable frontrunner for 2022 long before anyone ever saw a still from his latest project. It hardly mattered that the material was a dramatic step away from del Toro’s usual fare of sci-fi and fantasy riffs, or that it was a remake of a Tyrone Power film from the ‘50s. If any director had earned the right to take that risk, it was the guy who won the biggest prize in cinema with a story wherein a woman has sex with a hot fish-man.
The story centers on Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious worker at a rundown traveling carnival who dreams of the big time. Borrowing the cold-reading skills of the carny’s mind-reader (Toni Collette), Stan comes up with a scheme to present himself as a spiritualist preacher who cons rich people out of their money via séance sessions with the help of his “medium” (Rooney Mara.) To move the grift into the big leagues, he then teams up with a devious psychologist (Cate Blanchett) to target a skeptical auto tycoon. It doesn’t take long for Stan to get in over his head.
Based on the novel by William Lindsay, Nightmare Alley seems like standard del Toro stuff on the surface: there’s a carnival and paranormal-esque elements and Ron Perlman is right there. Yet it was a much darker slice of humanity than del Toro’s most iconic work.
One of del Toro’s defining features as a filmmaker is his wholehearted earnestness. He loves fairytales and gothic romances and classic horror, none of which he utilizes with anything remotely resembling cynicism. Even at his darkest, such as his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, he sees light at the end of the tunnel. Nobody finds greater beauty in the beastly than del Toro, whether it’s the ivory glow of the vampire in Cronos, the rom-com sweetness of Liz and Hellboy in Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, or the clay-stained snow surrounding the mansion of Crimson Peak. There may be monsters but often they’re kinder and more graceful than the humans. No matter how bad things are, there are shimmers of goodness throughout del Toro’s worlds.
This precedent is what makes del Toro’s choice to adapt Nightmare Alley so intriguing. There isn’t even the slightest glimmer of goodness in Gresham’s book, a pitch-black noir proudly mired in sleaze. Almost every single character is a narcissistic charlatan concerned solely with the accumulation of wealth. These are brutal, desperate, calculating people, each and every one of whom would make for an excellent villain in any other film noir. del Toro has created his fair share of irredeemable baddies (consider Michael Shannon in The Shape of Water, a macho soldier wholly committed to brutality), but they’re typically balanced out by heroes with good intentions or a scrappy resolve to do the right thing. Nightmare Alley has no such desires.
That’s something del Toro commits hard to in his adaptation. Cooper is an actor who is at his most interesting when he uses his traditional leading man charm to delve into self-obsessed smarm, and as Stanton Carlisle, he fully descends into the narcissism of the skillful huckster. The audience understands his appeal but cannot help but root for his downfall as he ignores all the warning signs in favor of exploiting riskier targets with bigger paydays. Cate Blanchett plays a femme fatale straight out of a Barbara Stanwyck noir, the kind of woman who everyone knows is dangerous yet won’t stay away from. Aside from the kind-hearted, if somewhat naïve, Molly, every character in Nightmare Alley is self-absorbed, manipulative, or just plain mean. The vast ensemble is focused on money or sex or booze and how to acquire them, and it’s all described with the same blunt tones of perversity. Everyone is fair game for exploitation, be it the gormless audiences of the carnival or the gullible society darlings who throw down big bucks for a blatantly false séance. People seek salvation but Gresham practically guffaws at such naivety. Humanity doesn’t deserve it in his eyes.
del Toro (along with co-screenwriter Kim Morgan) doesn’t shy away from the gloominess of the novel either. The second half of the movie is essentially a slow spiral into the worst recesses of human cruelty and failure. You know, as a viewer, that there will be no solace here, no last-minute reprieve or moment of penance from our horrid protagonist. It’s, to put it mildly, a total bummer. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda described Nightmare Alley as “a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece,” one that left him feeling “utterly flattened.” del Toro nails that effect.
Audiences didn’t clamor to the cinema to see Nightmare Alley. Released in theaters as Spider-Man: No Way Home swung into record-breaking territory as the omicron variant of COVID reared its ugly head, the film only grossed $2.8 million during its opening weekend, finishing fifth at the box office. Reviews were widely positive, though, and it’s received a few critics’ circle awards for its troubles. Mostly, however, there’s been this curious, and unfair cloud of failure surrounding Nightmare Alley. It’s not playing well with the major awards bodies, especially when compared to the likes of The Power of the Dog, Belfast, and West Side Story. Even perennial nominee Bradley Cooper isn’t making waves in the Best Actor conversation. The competition this year is vast, more so than last year, and it seems that there’s just more hype and general warmth towards other movies. Nightmare Alley’s fans are there but the notoriously middlebrow tastes of the Academy may not feel so enthusiastic about a gloomy and cynical noir with a moral about the inherent cruelty of humanity.
Nightmare Alley, however, may get a second chance at a legacy beyond those box office numbers and dashed awards season hopes and dreams. There’s the select release of a special black-and-white version of the film across Los Angeles that will surely stand as one last effort to court awards season voters (and something that makes a lot of aesthetic sense for the old-school noir). But there’s also the release on Hulu and HBO Max, presenting an opportunity for a lot more people to find this film and connect with its approach. Cult status isn’t usually sought, but it’s nothing to turn one’s head at, especially when it’s the last stab at relevancy for something that fully deserves a chance to be remembered.