Monday With Mildred: “Nightmare Alley”

Nightmare Alley movie poster.

Nightmare Alley

I am often ignorant about what is going on. Mostly that’s because I’m a socially awkward introvert, but also because I don’t pay attention well enough. That’s how I didn’t realize I was watching a Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) movie until the end credits came up. Surprises are fun, even better during the holiday season.

I totally blame the director for the instant and constant feeling of impending doom, beginning in the very first moments when we see a body wrapped in a sheet dragged across a wood floor, dumped into a hole and set on fire. The arsonist walks away from the lonely, burning farmhouse and gets on a bus. At a stop he sees a little person walking past and, intrigued, follows him. They end up in a 1930s carnival and freak show, and he ends up with a job on the lowest rung of a low ladder. Climbing it over the years, the sense of impending doom never quite goes away until the last line of the movie impressed me. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a more shocking and plot perfect last line.

The biggest reason I was impressed is, even though I didn’t see the line of dialogue coming, I did know where the protagonist was going to end up. The line was a pleasant surprise in an otherwise predictable film. I kept watching even after figuring what would happen because I was interested in how he gets there and that journey is fun if predictable. It’s a solid movie from art direction to music and lighting, with a slew of Hollywood heavyweights in the cast. Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born, American Sniper) is Stanton Carlisle, arsonist and newbie carny. He meets and falls for Molly (Rooney Mara, Carol, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), while learning the carny trade from Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman and David Strathairn. Cate Blanchett (Tár, Carol) is Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist who makes Stanton’s life hot.

Be aware there is the occasional shocking violence, uncomfortable imagery and quick shots of gore because it’s a del Toro movie. There is a strong early twentieth century feeling well portrayed through costuming, art, lighting, and attitudes shown in the script. Freak shows were not for the faint of heart in those pre-tv days, when rubes were plentiful. A lot of research has obviously been done to give the viewer more than a glimpse of the dark underbelly of the carnival business. There were a million ways to soak a mark back then and though the film feels like a deep dive into the muck, we really only see a few colorful schemes and routines used historically.

I totally recommend googling the carny industry for a fascinating and rarely portrayed part of American history, and watching this movie if you’re interested in a sordid story well told by a master of doom and inventive creepiness. I could never tell if I was supposed to be rooting for Stanton or hoping for his gruesome demise. It would make a great after film study group question to debate. You may not guess where it’s going as early as I did, but you’ll probably have a fun ride to the end like I did.


CFR: In Addition: Well huh. I didn’t want to see this as well, I love Del Toro but creepy! Maybe I will give it a try.

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