The master of dark horror and fantasy, Guillermo del Toro, is back with The Nightmare Alley and a five-star cast, including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, William Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Toni Collett, and David Strathairn. The movie hit the theatres on December 17th. It is based on William Lindsay Gresham’s fatalistic novel, published in 1946.
Power, wealth, betrayal, lust, and corruption are at the heart of The Nightmare Alley. When the charming and charismatic Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) meets Zeena (Toni Collette) the clairvoyant and her husband Pete, a former mentalist (David Strathairn) at a carnival in the 1940s, Stanton becomes a skilled manipulator and starts grifting the rich elite of New York City. Although the faithful Molly (Rooney Mara) never leaves his side, Stanton soon becomes captivated by the enigmatic Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who on a second look, might just be his biggest opponent.
In The Nightmare Alley, Del Toro unveils the dark and haunting world that became the trademark of the storyteller. However, it completely differs from all his previous movies, since The Nightmare Alley is a realistic and modern film noir:
“This is the first of my movies that, although it has a magical atmosphere, is not mannered or stylized. It’s set in a reality that is identifiable and immediate.”
As in every movie of Guillermo Del Toro, the cinematography of The Nightmare Alley is incredible and has a meaning. During the virtual press conference we attended, the director declared:
“The lesson (…) in this movie is ‘Why should I cut?’ I know where I’m going to cut. I’m going to use the crane like a witness. The camera is never high in this movie, almost never high, almost all the time, has a point of view of a child. And it’s always curious, trying to look over shoulders. I shot characters from behind a lot. Like the revelations came on the back of the characters. You know, Stan isn’t looking at the camera(…) and a new language evolved (…) So yes, there are all the normal things, and the key to that is, (they don’t have) to be done for beauty, but for the story and the character. ”
Rooney Mara declared that in order to understand her character, Molly, she used a little biography of her character that Guillermo Del Toro gave her:
“Guillermo writes these incredible (…) character biographies. And to me, that was when it all clicked for me when I read that. And there were so many little things in there, that might seem meaningless to some people, but that just make a person feel real. And that to me, that was my real entry point.”
For David Strathairn, it was very special and unique to work with Guillermo del Toro. He declared:
“His ability to balance and meld fantastical landscapes, mythical, almost, in their magnitude. And romantic, mysterious, monstrous, dark, very compelling worlds that he creates in such detail. His vision is almost like an hallucination that is actually palpable, that he can create. Yet at the same time, he can put real human beings in this landscape, and it’s obvious that his love for his characters that he creates is off the charts, and for me that’s what makes this film really special. You are overwhelmed with the world that he has created. But you are completely invested in the characters. And that’s hard to do. And he’s just a master at that.”
What added to this uniqueness of the experience is that The Nightmare Alley wasn’t filmed in a studio, and the set was as real as it gets. Strathairn continued:
“They built the entire thing for real. Those tents were real, the mud was real (…) you literally were living it. (…) You were at the whim of the weather (…) You are more than in a painting. You are in that world (…) Everywhere you’d look, in 360 degrees, there you were, in The Nightmare Alley.”
William Dafoe portrays Clem Hoathley The Carnival Barker. He is a two-faced character, at times very charming, at times extremely dangerous and menacing:
“You can’t judge the character, you can just give him opportunities, you know. He’s pragmatic. And you appreciate that he does take care of his own. But he’s also a guy that probably (…) grew up, came of age during the depression. (…) Maybe even been in prison, you know. He’s a guy that pragmatically sees the world as a world of winners and losers (…) preys and predators. So he’s got this kind of dark fatalistic view of the world. But at the same time, he cares about the people around him. (…) You also have the sense that he doesn’t enjoy this. He’s just getting on. That’s doesn’t justify… (…) He is a dark character, he’s not out to destroy people (…) he’s compassionate, towards certain people. So he’s human, but he’s a very flawed character.”
William Dafoe continued stating that a character is not meant to be valued by the actor portraying him:
“You know if you judge him morally, but that’s not my job as an actor. My job as an actor is to try to imagine him as a full person, capable of many contradictory behaviors.”
The actor also shared how he usually picks out his roles, and the answer is not as simple as just loving the character or the director.
“You know, I kind of look at the whole thing. I don’t think of role so much as I think of situations. I’m very drawn to strong directors. Because the truth is, someway, you don’t know a role until you do it. And usually, if you do know the role, there probably isn’t that kind of room for adventure or discovery or surprise that I usually like. You look for a situation. A situation to learn something, a situation to be transformed, a situation to be useful and a situation to maybe fulfill a fantasy or something that you’re curious about. (…) I don’t think in terms of roles. I think in terms of the whole story. And the whole idea of the movie.”
Let us know if you watched The Nightmare Alley in the comments below!