Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley ★★★★

Nightmare Alley is Guillermo del Toro's third masterwork. Like Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water he has made yet another film which is completely enchanting and fuses genre and history to dig into deeper ideas.

Nightmare Alley is about desperate people in desperate times, looking for work and running from their past. Success never delivers, and ruin is always close. In times of war and economic collapse, people feel ashamed of what they've done or haven't done. Nightmare Alley is a film obsessed with psychology, both in a literal plot-wise sense and also in the way it focuses so much on character motivation and ambition. It's a film about fooling people, pretending to understand them. With enough skill you can get people to do what you want, to give you money, to believe your lies, to become a monster. This is not a film of good people, but one of con artists and liars. However they refuse to acknowledge truth, which makes them fools also, and so they are destined to become what they once pitied.

The first hour of Nightmare Alley is near-perfect. It's incredibly immersive and thrilling, set at a carnival filled with dark yet human characters. It is clear early on that this is a film for adults, and despite being highly stylised the film takes things very seriously. The nasty violence is sparse but brutal, a trademark of del Toro's best movies. The second hour is less special, becoming bogged down with manipulations and machinations. Obviously the source material was always going to create a film that is structurally bisected, but Nightmare Alley definitely starts better than it finishes. The rushed ending doesn't help, since the slow and careful pace of the rest of the film seems at odds with the brevity of the final scenes.

Part of me admires this Nightmare Alley more than the 1947 version. It draws out richer themes, feels more immersive, and has a grimmer tone that better fits the story. Yet it lacks a certain authenticity and simplicity. This film is deliberately arched and stylised, feeling more fake and all part of an act. That's why the atmosphere is so great and every second looks spectacular. It just rings a little more insincere, which works amazingly at the heightened reality of the carnival but seems a little silly when people are inside offices talking.

This Nightmare Alley is a real achievement of cinema. It's a film that I was completely engrossed by for the majority of the runtime. It gets a bit muddled late on, but the artistic intent and vision shine through everything. The world of liars has rarely seemed so paradoxically true and yet fantastical. I may have some very small reservations, but Nightmare Alley is otherwise a stunning work that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

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