Nightmare Alley Explained: Guillermo del Toros obscure cabinet of curiosities is a male-centered thriller that lags a strong storyline

Movie Review of the 2022 Oscar Nominée with Bradley Cooper

[Attention: Spoilers Ahead]

Nightmare Alley Synopsis:

The Carnival

In his latest movie, academy award-winning director Guillermo del Toro takes us back into the early 20th century.
Stanton “Stant” Carlise (Bradley Cooper) left his home, leaving his uncertain past burning to the ground as he walks away.
He finds a new home, work, and love in a carnival that presents artists, obscure elements, and magic to the world. The headmaster Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe) takes him in, offers him a job and trust.
In this collaboration of entertainers, there is one job that draws Stant´s attention. The Geek is a creature, presented in a hole in the ground, as a near-human being who bites off the head of chickens.
Soon, Stan gets close with the clairvoyant Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn). These three share a family-like connection, in which Stant´s gets introduced to Fortune Telling tricks by Pete.
One of the entertainers, Molly (Rooney Mara) soon becomes Stant´s object of interest and eventually, they run away together. Unfortunate for Bruno (Ron Perlman) who sees himself as a guardian of Molly and bad for Pete who gets accidentally killed by Stant.

The setup

Two years into the future Molly and Stant are presenting a show together. They are fortune-telling in fancy hotels and earn a lot of money. The relationship between the two has shifted from a loving romance to Stant behaving as we expect it from a 1930s husband.

Stan (Bradley Cooper) and Molly (Rooney Mara) in Guillermo Del Toros NIGHTMARE ALLEY
Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY.
Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

As Stant gets in contact with psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchet) they develop a scam to trick rich people into believing Stant can talk to their dead loved ones. Over time, these two start an affair.

The salvation

It all comes to an end as Ezra Grindle (Rickard Jenkins) a rich businessman, sees through the trick of Stant. Ezra seeks the forgiveness of his wife whom he forced to bear a child not fit to live and who died during birth.
Stant kills Ezra, Molly leaves him and after an escapade of homelessness, Stant arrives at the old carnival. Things have changed, a new Headmaster is in charge who offers Stant the job as Geek. Stant accepts saying that he was born for this job.

Nightmare Alley explained:

The story is full of side characters and little anecdotes that tend to draw away the attention of the main subject.
All events and characters are arranged around Stant. To understand the story and the deeper meaning we need to analyze Stant´s backstory, motivation, and symbols. Afterward, we draw connections between the supporting characters and Stant´s inner conflicts.

Stant´s connection to his parents:

Stant and the crime he committed when he killed his father keep Stant going throughout the story.
His father didn´t love him though Stant wished he did. Therefore he hated him for not getting back any love. His mother left them when he was little, leaving with another man. Stant hated his father for not being able to hold his mother, as he says in a dialog with Dr. Lilith Ritter.

Stant´s Symbols:

Throughout the movie, Del Toro introduces four symbols to demonstrate the change that Stant undergoes.

1. The watch of his father

Stant and Pete talk about his fathers watch.

It is an object of nostalgia when Pete, the old magician, demonstrates to Stant how a mind-reading trick works. The watch belonged to his father and Stant took it after letting him freeze on his bed. Every time we see it, the ticking of the watch reminds us, that time is running out, although at the beginning we don´t know why.
It is clear that Stant is quite keen on this precious object and it is loaded with emotions of some sort. When he is asked by Ezras guard Anderson (Holt McCallany) to lose the watch he snaps back and asks Anderson to be more polite.
Close to the end, Stant exchanges this watch for a drink from a bunch of homeless people.

Stan (Bradley Cooper) and Pete (David Strathairn) in Guillermo del Toros NIGHTMARE ALLEY
Stant and his teaching father figure.
Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

2. No Alcohol

Stant´s father was a drunk. Stant is convinced that the drinking drew away his mother from him and therefore he takes pride in not even drinking a small glass of alcohol.
About two-thirds into the movie he starts drinking alcohol when he is together with Dr. Lilith Ritter.
The alcohol as the watch is a reminder of Stant´s past, especially of his father.
From the first glass on he starts drinking even more until he ends as a drunk, getting offered the job as Geek on the fair. This brings us to the third symbol.

3. The Geek

The Geek is a role played on the fair. Clem looks for a drunk that he can drug with Opium to keep in in the cage for attraction. The role symbolizes the lowest point a human being can fall when he steps into the spiral of self-destruction. The geek is kept in a cage and is shown to people as a creature from far lands. As the main attraction, the Geek rips off the head of a chicken with his bare teeth.
Stant and the Geek are connected from the beginning on. Since Stant committed the crime on his father he is convinced that he is bad, a sinner, and therefore will have to pay for his crimes.
As the Geek escapes during the firm’s third of the movie Stant enters the funhouse attraction. Everything in it shows the visitor his sinful side and Stant recognizes himself in a mirror reading ” Look at you sinner.” As he finds the Geek, it attacks Stant but he is capable of wrestling it down.
Arriving himself at the point of playing the Geek marks Stant´s point of punishment that he expects to come.

4. Enoch

Clem has an obscure collection of degenerated fetuses. His piece of heart is Enoch, a monstrous baby with a third eye that killed his mother during birth.
Enoch as well as Stant have the ability to see things others can´t. Stant as a mind reader bears the shame of feeling responsible for his mother leaving, thus killing her off his life.
Enoch returns to the fair in the end as Stant comes back to accept the job as Geek.

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY.
Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

The character’s representation of Stant´s parents:

There are three female and male supporting characters, each symbolizing a different state of parenthood and connection to Stant.
Molly: Is the love for Stant. She not only symbolises true love but also the supporting motherly love that Stant longs for. But since Stant feels left by his mother and a sinner he doesn´t earn her love and therefore cannot answer Molly with true feelings.
Zeena: Except for their romantic event at their first meeting she is the closest that Stant gets to a mother. He can accept and love her since she is herself mixed between good and bad.
Dr. Lilith Ritter: Is a psychologist and the one that digs into Stant´s deeper feelings. She symbolizes the dark side of his mother, the one that Stant can be angry about for leaving him. In the climax he even tries to strangle her, letting off the feelings to his own mother.
Pete: The nice, loving father figure. Is too weak for Stant and thus he accidentally kills him off. Letting off his anger at his dead father again.
Ezra: The symbol of a heartless father, pushing his wife too far until her death. He is the one that Stant kills in full awareness. By hitting him until his nose sunk into the skull he is reliving the anger of the heartless father of his own.
Bruno and Clem: They are both father figures that Stant can accept and tolerate since they are not too weak but still show him their respect.

Nightmare Alley´s obscure message

Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY.
Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

It´s a dark movie that Gullermo del Toro wrote and directed.
Even though it introduced a net of symbols and deeper connections it lacks a message.
This is a movie about Stant and nothing else.
To break it down this movie is about Stant feeling a sinner and looking for punishment.
We as the audience follow him in his self-destructive path, sometimes unsure of his deeper motivation. In the end, many actions fit together as we understand that Stant wants to fail.

Nobody is good in NIGHTMARE ALLEY


The supporting characters, and we really have to call them that since no one comes close to being an important counterpart to him. And that is was makes this movie so strange and obscure. It is not a story about interactions. Every character seems to be positioned by the screenplay, unable to act in another way than what is expected of them. They are all symbols to reflect Stant´s character. There is no surprise in any of the turns the characters take. It is not even uncertain that Stant might be happy.

And so the dialogues themselves feel staged and stiff. Especially Stant and Dr. Lilith do not spread any affection that can reflect on the audience.

To see it from the Meta perspective we can see ourselves as Stant, or as Molly. Molly is a bright girl that wants nothing else than a bright future and a life of happiness.
Stant has already chosen the path of self-destruction.

I am disappointed by this piece since the Shape of water confronted me with a fairytale-like romance in beautiful images and Pans Labyrinth left me in tears of this genius historic mystic drama.
But Nightmare Alley stays nothing more than a movie about a man who thinks the world turns around him and is trying to crush him.

What are your thoughts?

Benedikt

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