“What sort of God would put us here in this goddamned, stinking slaughterhouse of a world?”
― William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley
The only thing you want from a nightmare is to wake up, as the only sane part of your brain that’s working tries to tell you none of it is real. The main character Stanton (Bradley Cooper), in Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, isn’t just having a nightmare — he’s living one. He probably thinks, somewhere along that twisty path, he will wake up. Such is the curse of doomed fate.
Nightmare Alley is an ensemble work with career-best work from Bradley Cooper, and very good performances from Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and Richard Jenkins. It is beautiful to look at on it surface — the production design, the cinematography, the costumes, and the makeup are sumptuous and visually gratifying. But make no mistake: this is a nightmare. It is a nightmare that originally sprang from the sensitive, observant mind of writer William Lindsay Gresham, to then be filtered through the vibrant, daring imaginations of Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan. But you can never make the mistake while you’re watching this movie that it is anything but a nightmare.
At the hands of co-writers Del Toro and Morgan, this version of Nightmare Alley is much more like the book than it is about the Tyrone Power version. Only a writer like Gresham — whose own life was destroyed by alcohol, by his struggle to not mistreat and abuse women, by his battle with TB and blindness, and by what is clearly an inability to cope with the horrors of everyday life that would eventually drive him to suicide — could have come up with a story like this one. This is a movie where nothing and no one is as it seems. It isn’t that everyone is rotten underneath. It’s that when you yourself are rotten, you not only destroy the best things that come your way, but you find yourself gravitating towards the worst humanity has to offer. It is the fate, the darkness that pulls you in, that you can’t escape from.
The film begins with the truly repulsive image of a twisted figure in a cage. Cooper’s Stanton, and the filmmakers, spend a lot of time on this creature — called a geek — that is made to eat live chickens so that ticket buyers can see the depths of his depravity and feel better about their own lot in life. Stanton pities him, tries to help him, and gives him some relief. But none of that does any good. The geek is just no longer able to function in any capacity. What is it, we wonder — what is it we’re looking at? Well, that is the question the film seeks to answer. How bad does it have to get where a person ends up there?
Del Toro’s film is much more horror than noir. In film noir, the idea is that someone can’t escape their fate, despite their best efforts to try. Here, Stanton doesn’t try to escape his fate — it’s much worse than that. He tempts it. And then tempts it again. Any human alive knows how that will end. Nightmare Alley is relentless in its darkness. For some, right now, that will be much too much. But if you understand going in what the whole point of this movie is, you might sit back and appreciate the lesson. This is a twist of fate Rod Serling or Charlie Brooker would approve of.
That is a horrific thing to see, no doubt. But like every act at a carnival, it exposes uncomfortable truths about human beings. What is Twitter but a nonstop freak show where someone is dragged out into the public square to be mocked, humiliated, and laughed at so people can feel better about themselves? It is as human as breathing.
Here is the wonderful Freddie DeBoer in his column today:
There is, on Twitter, the concept of the “main character,” and the way it’s discussed is a perfect example of how people on that network shuck their own sense of agency and responsibility. (It’s a textbook example of bad faith in the tradition of French existentialism, actually.) Coined by user @maplecocaine, the maxim is “Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.” In other words, each day on Twitter someone is held up for widespread public ridicule, and you want to make sure that it’s not you, because your job in life is never to do anything that might result in you getting made fun of by others, or something. But the expression of the main character idea is a tell: it’s an entirely passive construction. Who chooses the main character? Wrong question; the main character just is. Hey, it’s just Twitter.
But Twitter is only the behavior of its users. Saying that there just is a main character is a denial of agency. There’s a main character because people choose to treat someone that way. People see a pile-on and they say “that looks like fun!” and they exercise their adult choice to participate. It doesn’t just happen. So “there is” here is weasel words, bad faith. A more honest synopsis would be “each day we, meaning you and me, choose to hold one person up for shared ridicule.” But this is the true killer app of social media: it socializes responsibility for bad behavior. Internet culture insists that every individual actor is just participating in some larger communal behavior, rather than exercising intentionality and choice. Oh, hey, well, sure, I helped make the worst day of someone’s life a little bit worse, but come on, everybody else was doing it too….
One is best advised not to feel too secure in their moral superiority. What do you participate in? After all, who is worse: the geek in the arena, or the people watching the geek? I think, without a doubt, the watchers are worse. If you can’t offer mercy, but only mocking and laughter to those suffering, then you are the nightmare. You are the horror. Here, Del Toro and Morgan put up a mirror and dare us to make that call. What do you feel when you watch something that horrific? Do you think: he’s made so many mistakes, he’s hurt so many people that he deserves his fate?
When I first saw Nightmare Alley, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to form an instant opinion about it. Sure, I would be asked: is this an Oscar contender? And what that means is, is this film palatable enough that thousands of people will vote with their hearts for it, or vote with some part of their body for it? Sometimes it isn’t the heart. Sometimes it’s self-righteousness. Sometimes it’s pure admiration and hero-worship. Well, the answer to that question is complicated. Movies have a right to exist outside the circle of what Oscar voters will vote for, or at least they used to. If they are ignored by the Academy, they still have a life beyond that game. In fact, there is a pretty good chance that they have an even longer life. However, the Oscars help make movies more money and they boost careers, and they lend clout. So for that, they are still highly prized.
But how do you take such a dark tale as this and spin it around in a publicity machine? That’s much harder to do. I had to sleep on this movie. Think about it. Wrestle with its contradictions. Everything in the movie makes sense to me except one character, and that’s the Cate Blanchett character. She was like the knot I kept reaching every time I tried to run a comb through my hair.
And then I remembered the thrust of this movie: it’s a nightmare. In nightmares, there is no making sense of anything. You simply have to survive them.
I would caution trying to stuff Nightmare Alley into that box. It is a movie that can and should be seen and appreciated on its own merits. It isn’t going to make anyone feel good about closing their eyes and going to sleep, that’s for sure. Images in that movie, like the worst nightmares, still haunt my own imagination. But that didn’t make me not want to have seen it. It is a work of art like no other you will see this year.
Nightmare Alley is as beautiful as it is grotesque. And though there is a temptation to credit Del Toro with much of this, those of us who are familiar with Kim Morgan’s work as a film critic and a photographer will be able to see her influence — which is, I think, everywhere — from the dialogue to much of the imagery to the sensibility. Del Toro isn’t working with supernatural elements here unless you think about fate as one of those, which it can sometimes be. Clearly, these two are simpatico when it comes to being obsessed with freaky artifacts from old movies, carnivals, and freak shows. Theirs is, I think, a strong collaboration.
William Lindsay Gresham did not live a happy life. He struggled with TB, with blindness, and with an addiction to alcohol that he could not control. This movie is really about that struggle. For some of us, we can only be measured by what takes us down. Upon his death, business cards were found in his pocket that read, “No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired.” Now, thanks to Del Toro and Morgan, he can be remembered as a great writer.
To know this movie is to appreciate that writing:
“How helpless they all looked in the ugliness of sleep. A third of life spent unconscious and corpselike. And some, the great majority, stumbled through their waking hours scarcely more awake, helpless in the face of destiny. They stumbled down a dark alley toward their deaths. They sent exploring feelers into the light and met fire and writhed back again into the darkness of their blind groping.”
“Man comes into the world a blind, groping mite. He knows hunger and the fear of noise and of falling. His life is spent in flight – flight from hunger and from the thunderbolt of destiny. From his moment of birth he begins to fall through the whistling air of Time: down, down into a chasm of darkness . . . we come like a breath of wind over the fields of morning. We go like a lamp flame caught by a blast from a darkened window. In between we journey from table to table, from battle to bottle, from bed to bed. We suck, we chew, we swallow, we lick, we try to mash life into us like an am-am-amoeba God damn it! Somebody lets us loose like a toad out of a matchbox and we jump and jump and jump and the guy always behind us, and when he gets tired he stomps us to death and our guts squirt out on each side of the boot of All Merciful Providence. The son-of-a-bitch!”
There are two kinds of movies: movies that make you feel better about the truth, and movies about the truth. No one really gets away cleanly in Nightmare Alley. This is a film that exposes our darker, not our better, nature. But that darkness is who we are too. It’s what we wrestle with every single day in every decision we make, every exchange with another living thing. We hope we choose the right path, the one that is better for ourselves and others. But all too often we don’t. Many of us may never figure that out until it’s much too late.
Nightmare Alley stayed with me. It disturbed me. It provoked me. It made me think about things I didn’t want to think about. It is the ugly and the beautiful of what it means to be alive. It stands out in 2021 as a film that will mark this moment in our history, all of the stuff we pretend we can’t see. Our collective cruelty towards one another. Our inability to let go of that cruelty, and the traps we set for ourselves that we can’t even see when we close our eyes and fall asleep.
This is a film, and an experience, that seduces you into wanting to watch all of this beauty — the people, the clothes, the cinematography — and then dares you to keep watching, to lift the layers and look at the underneath… from all of that beauty to all of the horror.