(For Day 6 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was to write an acrostic poem, not spelling out something with the first letter of each line but using the first word of each line to form some phrase or quote, so I chose a classic line of Walter Scott poetry that sums up so many dark stories.)

Oh, I know
What you desire,
A listening ear to stem your fear,
Tangled up and dire.
Web of anger, web of grief – either one
We fall into –
Weave around us
When they’ve found us,
First a lie, then gravely true.
We wish to believe, and we
Practice that creed, if only
To try to
Deceive our own greed.

MPA rating:  R (mainly for language and scattered but graphic violence)

Every few years, there comes along a Best Picture nominee that dwells on the sordid saga of someone’s lies taken to an extreme, prompting me to sum up the theme with the Walter Scott quote from my acrostic poem above. The last was Parasite, and while Nightmare Alley didn’t achieve the same awards love of that film, it’s still a chillingly effective and handsomely-made period piece. Based on a 1946 film by William Lindsay Gresham, which already had a film adaptation in 1947, Nightmare Alley follows Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) from an apparent murder scene to a Depression-era carnival, where he learns the ropes of mentalism and carny hokum from a pair of faux psychics (Toni Collette, David Strathairn). After wooing an assistant (Rooney Mara) and taking his own mentalist show on the road, he becomes entangled with aloof psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) as they seek to pull off bigger and more dangerous cons.

I haven’t seen many of director Guillermo del Toro’s other films, but, comparing this one to Pan’s Labyrinth, Nightmare Alley is unique in its lack of supernatural elements but also shares some of his favorite excesses, like the dark and slick aesthetic and moments of bloody violence that could have been toned down. The noir production design is especially laudable, from the shadowy grotesquerie of the carnival to the art deco elegance of Dr. Ritter’s office, and it could have earned an Oscar or two if Dune hadn’t swept the technical categories.

I was dissatisfied at first with Cooper’s portrayal of Carlisle, who seemed rather wooden, like too much of a blank page, at the beginning. Yet as the film wore on through its overlong two and a half hours, I realized that was intentional, as Carlisle absorbed the carny wiles of his friends in the first half, gradually becoming more and more confident in himself and his powers of persuasion until his house of cards falls. And boy, does it fall hard! I was surprised that Cooper didn’t warrant a Best Actor nomination for the range of emotions his character undergoes, but all of the actors did an excellent job across the board.

Nightmare Alley is certainly a dark drama, with cold people doing cruel things as they weave that tangled web, but I found it surprisingly riveting (minus the violence). It’s hard to say whether a moral can be gleaned from the story beyond “trust no one,” but based on advice from Willem Dafoe’s seasoned carnival barker, one of the themes seems to be how people can know exactly the ruin where their path is leading and still fail to turn from it, first noticed in Carlisle’s growing alcoholism. I’m curious now to see how the original 1946 film compares, since I assume it’s largely the same story without the R rating. Ultimately, Nightmare Alley just couldn’t stand out enough in its crowded field, but it is an awards-caliber film nonetheless.

Best line: (Carlisle) “Sometimes you don’t see the line until you cross it.”

Rank:  List Runner-Up

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