In ‘Nightmare Alley,’ a Carnival of Sin | Sojourners

In ‘Nightmare Alley,’ a Carnival of Sin

'Nightmare Alley' / Searchlight Pictures

Director Guillermo del Toro has spent his film career mining the rich vein of genre story beats — both subverting them and paying loving homage — to critical acclaim. His latest feature, Nightmare Alley, is his first remake and his most heavily reliant on classic film tropes yet, from the world of carnival B-movie flicks to pulpy film noir.

Faithful narratively to both the novel and the original 1947 film adaptation, Nightmare Alley is the story of ambitious huckster Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) and his insatiable thirst for money and status. His wanderings first take him to a traveling carnival roadshow. Drawing on films such as 1932’s controversial Freaks, del Toro portrays the carnival as a world unto itself, where people who are otherwise misfits from society can earn a steady living and find some semblance of community.

But the carnival has a darker side — while a respite from the outside world for many of its inhabitants, it is portrayed as a personal hell for others. In a traveling carnival, for example, a geek was a performer, often coerced through substance abuse, induced into biting off the heads of chickens for the entertainment of audiences. In Nightmare Alley, the geek resides in, literally, a dark pit, from which there is no escape — echoes of Sheol. (Meanwhile, flames are a recurring motif for Stan Carlisle, invoking another vision of divine punishment).

Unsatisfied with merely reinvigorating the carnival’s attractions, Stan soon realizes his ambitions require a larger stage. Learning a magic act from one of the performers, he sets out alongside Molly (Rooney Mara), and soon the pair are performing to bigger and wealthier audiences. Yet despite being warned against playing God, Stan’s act takes a darker turn, and he stumbles onto the tantalizing possibility of his biggest con yet.

Despite the discomfort some viewers might feel from the film’s visceral violence, Nightmare Alley is ultimately an old-fashioned morality tale, one in which del Toro refuses to let his central character escape the weight and judgment of his own actions. The film barrels towards the moment when Stan’s schemes fall apart with unrelenting brutality, and eventually Stan’s machinations begin to unravel. Nightmare Alley also thrills in the strong performances of characters: Cate Blanchett’s Dr. Lilith Ritter, cool and unflappable, always in control even when she seems not to be; Toni Collette’s Zeena, whose love is more complex than it initially appears.

Faith is established early on as a central theme. Rhetorically, the film suggests connections between Carlisle and the redemptive power of religion — only to continually undermine these declarations through the character’s actions. While Stan and a compatriot engage in furtive acts in a poorly lit alleyway, hiding the physical evidence of a death caused through their own moral failings, a half-burned-out neon sign prominently reads “Jesus Saves.” In another scene, a funhouse mirror urges the viewer — in this case, Stan — to “look upon your sins.” Continually, Stan uses the rhetoric of faith to justify the increasing horrors of his act: stating that he must “deliver hope” to another character, or urging another character that they “have to have faith.” He alludes to the hypocrisy of his father — a preacher — and argues that his own profession is no worse.

The film makes it clear that that Stan is deluding himself in refusing to accept moral agency or responsibility for his own actions, blaming his own failings on past trauma which is never fully detailed. This narrative choice puts Stan’s present choices front and center, rather than his past. Instead of justifying or waving away Stan’s horrific — even murderous — acts, del Toro refuses to give his audience such comfort. Despite the sins of Stan’s father, the son’s choices, the film makes clear, are his own.

Both of the previous incarnations of Nightmare Alley — the novel and its first adaptation — end with a character looking at once back on his past and ahead to the bleak future that awaits him with the crucial line, “I was made for it.” In del Toro’s version, the line undergoes a subtle but crucial change — “I was born for it.”

The choice of words is deliberate — highlighting a worldview in which one’s fate is set from birth, and that evil is therefore justified if one has no choice other than to play out the role that was written for them.

Such justifications demonstrate a failure of moral imagination when it comes to the problem of sin, the film argues. We always have a choice.