A cautionary tale about taking things too far.
Nightmare Alley is a 2021 thriller by Guillermo del Toro about a carnival showman who becomes a mentalist in early 20th century New York, and realizes he’s not as good at the game he’s playing as he thinks he is. It’s really long but really compelling.
The movie follows a loser named Stan who joins a carnival after killing his dad (it’s formally revealed later in the movie that he killed his dad, but it’s obvious from the start). He ends up an assistant to two carnival psychics who teach him how to do their tricks and warn him never to do them outside the context of a show, because doing a “spook show” is how people get hurt by their skills. Stan falls in love with Molly, one of the other performers, and the two leave the carnival to get married and start a mentalist show in New York, making all kinds of money. There, they meet Dr. Lilith Ritter, who convinces Stan to con rich people with her, which eventually leads to Stan beating a rich person to death, Ritter stealing all his money, Molly leaving him, and Stan going to become an alcoholic drug addict in another carnival.
The exciting part of the movie is definitely the second half after Stan and Molly move to New York, and it feels too short while the movie as a whole feels too long. The first half of the movie, where Stan learns about the carnival and how to do mentalism, is also really good, but also too short. I know all that setup was necessary for the stuff that happens in the second half, but it really made this feel like two poorly paced movies instead of one well paced one. Guillermo del Toro I find to be a very hit and miss director and I wouldn’t call Nightmare Alley a miss, but it definitely suffers from pacing issues that wouldn’t have been that hard to resolve by just cutting twenty minutes of the first half.
Dr. Lilith Ritter is the real star to be honest. She’s a femme fatale psychologist who’s using Stan to convince him to steal the money, claiming that it’s purely so she can analyse his psychology but obviously so she can steal all the money in the end, which she does. Honestly, Stan is a bit stupid for falling for anything she says; she’s a seductive psychologist, she says all the things Stan wants to hear, she has a decadent evil office, she lights her cigarettes with secret notes in her fireplace, her name is literally Lilith and she’s played by Cate Blanchett in a role that, if it wasn’t written for her, should have been. She’s the most compelling actor and the most interesting character in the movie, and I’m forced to agree with my friend who said “every scene where she has the upper hand is the best scene in film history, and every scene where she’s vulnerable is just fine.” There’s no real reason for her to be vulnerable in those scenes except to create false suspense that she might face consequences for her behaviour, but she clearly won’t, because she’s an evil sexy 30s psychiatrist played by Cate Blanchett in a neo-noir psychological thriller about a man with daddy issues. The only reason to assume she might be in danger is because women in Guillermo del Toro’s movies don’t tend to fare well, but actually none of the important female characters suffer anything worse than a divorce in this movie, so that’s something.
I describe Stan’s daddy issues flippantly, but they’re pretty serious because he did intentionally kill his dad and then (maybe) accidentally killed his surrogate father figure, which kind of fucks him up for the whole movie. It doesn’t excuse him being shitty to his wife or conning people, but it kind of does explain why he doesn’t seem to have any qualms mentally attacking old men or conning them into giving him all their money. Not to be a psychologist, but it seems pretty obvious that he struggles with his desire to destroy the male figures around him, probably because of aggression towards his father.
There’s almost no storyline in any piece of fiction in the entire history of the human race that is less interesting than “straight White man with daddy issues” (the only one that comes to mind is the dreaded “driving in the United States”), so I mention it not because it’s interesting or compelling or worth talking about, but because it segues into the movie’s focus on psychology, which is interesting. Talk therapy was getting really big around this time, and so was mentalism—two really fascinating psychological things were happening together around the same time, and it’s cool to see them kind of come together like this. They were almost always at odds even though lots of people bought into both of them, and so watching them come briefly together in this movie, but only in a destructive way, was kind of fun. Lilith Ritter feels like she’s probably a terrible therapist, but I would still go to her, probably.
But anyway, what’s interesting about this is that she does actually get at Stan’s daddy issues and gets him to talk about them in a way that’s sometimes interesting, and it really struck a chord with me. You’re not supposed to identify with Stan, but I really did, because he’s a fuckup in the same way that I am, and I appreciate that about him. The best movies are about the conflicts characters have, not about plots, and that’s ultimately why I think this movie succeeds.
Nightmare Alley has some problems, but overall I think it’s a really good movie. I enjoyed watching it, more than I expected to, to be honest. I recommend it.