Rated R, for some truly heinous things. There's a fair amount of shock value to this movie, especially when it comes to the stuff involving the creation of a geek. But beyond that, it's about murder and selfishness. If a movie could comment on its view of humanity, Nightmare Alley thinks that the world is a cesspool. There's language and some sexual stuff. R.
DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro
I was warned that this picture was terrible. That's not even a little bit accurate. Is it perfect? No. Considering that I used to be obsessed with del Toro, Nightmare Alley can fall into the category of "It's fine." There's a lot here that is amazing, sure. But the problem with Nightmare Alley is that it has one element that is really underbaked when the rest is actually crafted pretty darned well.
I'm reminded a little bit of Tales from the Crypt with this movie. I think I'm misremembering Tales from the Crypt because I simply think that they all had a supernatural element to them. That's not true. They were definitely meant to be spooky, which Nightmare Alley definitely is. But moreover, Tales from the Crypt were always these little morality plays. They were short little tales about how the protagonist, because of the evils he had embraced, brought about his own ironic downfall. I don't mean to be so glib about this film, but that's Nightmare Alley. The first act has Willem Dafoe talking about the most horrific thing that one man can do to another. It's foreshadowing. We treat the hobo as a person who continued to make the worst choices until the final result is brought about. Then Stan makes those choices because of his own hubris. And we want to see him fail. The opening shot of the movie is him covering up the death of his father. He's unlikable from moment one. He only has value in comparison to Willem Dafoe's character.
That geek setup, by the way, that's classic. That's del Toro showing his ending and having us figure out how to get to that point. The odd thing is, Dafoe's carny is still somewhere in the morally sound area according to the rules of the movie. Dafoe is the one who is doing all of these evil acts. He kidnaps people and gets them addicted until they debase themselves to death. But he never gets his comeuppance. He, as far as we know, is bought out by the other carnival. Yet, we need Stan to fall. It's not that he necessarily broke the rules of society. No, he murders his father before the events of the film. What he's actually a criminal of is breaking the carny code. (Note: I don't love using the word "carny." It just is the vernacular of the film so I'm sticking with it for the sake of clarity.) It's perfectly reasonable for Stan to sucker rubes out of their fortune. If anything, Stan's upward mobility makes him a more sympathetic character because he's suckering the upper crust instead of poor carnival goers. He's allowed to lie to them, as long as he doesn't do the ghost act.
Everything that he's doing with Dr. Ritter is an extreme version of the ghost act. It's this moment that's a little underbaked. Dr. Ritter is the femme fatale of the movie. Here's my problem with Dr. Ritter. Dr. Ritter, as the femme fatale, is meant to seduce the male antihero into doing her bidding, leading to his downfall. Fine, that happens. It's part of the tropes of the film noir and this movie keeps that trope going on. But Dr. Ritter is also completely underdeveloped. There's not a lot going on with her motivations for suckering Stan. There's a moment that is meant to be the shoe drop. It's the precise time when Stan realizes that Dr. Ritter is using him and not the other way around. It's supposed to be this big revelation for the audience, but there isn't anything really there. We're supposed to be surprised that she has manipulated the whole thing. But we don't really have a reason for her manipulating the whole thing. If anything, the entire situation with Stan and Ezra Grindle seems like a completely unnecessary risk for her. It draws a lot of attention her way and might completely ruin any long-term plans for success.
But now I have to place myself in the crosshairs. The reason that del Toro has Ritter betray Stan is because he needs to be punished for going too far. By embracing the ghost con, he hurts Molly, which is the real crime. Does it matter that Dr. Ritter doesn't serve the plot as tightly as she should? I mean, the character stuff lies on Stan and Molly's shoulders. Stan represents corruption. He's a small time grifter who becomes a big shot. We know that he's going to get in trouble for his meteoric rise to success. Molly represents salvation. Her innocence is this sympathetic heart to the film. We want to see her escape Stan or drive him into the arms of redemption. Del Toro tells these two elements extremely well. Heck, if it wasn't for the Dr. Ritter stuff, those elements would have me raving about the movie. I think the reason that the Dr. Ritter bothers me so much in the movie is that del Toro sets up her reveal to be a trick.
It's not a trick. It's a reveal and del Toro needs a way to end the film. He needs to get Stan to be a geek and that's the way he pulls it off. It's emotionally weak as a choice. But it does lead to that moment where, not only does Stan become a geek. He actually knows that he's being manipulated into becoming a geek. It's a great ending that kind of skips a beat to get there.
What this kind of leaves me with is the idea that this is a gorgeous movie. As much as I hated The Shape of Water, I had to admit that it was a very pretty movie. While Nightmare Alley is a better picture than The Shape of Water, it suffers from the fact that the prettiness of the film doesn't exactly match the content of the film. It's a bummer, because I think that del Toro is one of this generation's great visual storytellers. But he's also kind of shackled by his own tastes. I have a strong vibe that he had an ending that he desperately wanted to get to. He missed a beat and --instead of questioning whether this ending belonged with this movie --forgave a moment that was vital despite being incomplete. The ending was too precious to him and it came at the expense of the movie. If the Dr. Ritter ending didn't lead to him becoming a geek, there might have been a stronger resolution. Instead, I get the vibe that he thinks that the geek ending wouldn't have gotten a second chance. After all, there are few directors who have just shelves of unused scripts like Guillermo del Toro.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.