Few directors can have a small body of work and yet feel so pervasive, so integral, so inspiring as writer/director Guillermo del Toro. When he’s not writing or directing one of his own projects, he’s producing or raving about someone else’s. He loves cinema as much as any general audience member and never shies away from this. His films push audiences by exploring dreamlike and nightmarish worlds, often as they overlap with our regular one. Sometimes they’re allegorical, sometimes more overt, but each are extraordinary in their magical realism. For the first time, del Toro shuns literal magics or illusions, exploring the rise and fall of man through the adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley. This is the second adaptation of the novel (the first being Edmund Goulding’s in 1947) and is executed in keeping with del Toro’s unique perspective. Everything is tangible, everything is real, and all of it is fake. Want to go deeper into one auteur’s process? The home release for del Toro’s Nightmare Alley includes three bonus features to allow such an endeavor.
If you’re interested in my spoiler-free thoughts on Nightmare Alley, I recommend checking out the initial theatrical review. Moving forward, I will discuss a few detail-specific aspects of the film.
Just off the bus from anywhere, Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds himself wandering the grounds of a carnival, taken in by its sights and treasures. When a misstep finds him on the wrong end of strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman), he expects to be thrown out and ends up being offered a job by Clem (Willem Dafoe), the operator of the carnival. Soon, Stan is ingratiated with the troupe, learning their tricks and trades, discovering that he’s got what it takes to become a mentalist himself. On a leap of faith, he and fellow carnie Molly (Rooney Mara) leave the carnival for the big city, where they become a huge success. Except success draws attention, both the good and the bad, each with their own temptations, each with their own paths to glory or folly.
Though this film didn’t connect with me, a feeling I continue to be unable to comprehend, I do marvel at the technical work that went into the creating of this world. Del Toro describes it as a classic film made in a modern way and it’s quite accurate of a description. It’s a slow burn tale in which a lost soul, already tarnished and jaded, is given the chance to rebuild himself and squanders it. While there are plenty of tales like that now, del Toro’s direction and Dan Laustsen’s (Crimson Peak) cinematography, give the whole of Nightmare Alley a classic Hollywood-feel. The difference being that in classic Hollywood, they’d have been more likely to use studio sets than go on-location — the key thing that makes del Toro’s Nightmare Alley possess that modern touch. This in combination with beautifully crafted sets, purposeful art decoration, and a cast that’s more than capable of mesmerizing you when they’re on-screen, results in a film which, if it grabs you properly, will have you considering the choices you’ve made and whether they were determined by hubris or something loftier. Personally, that the film ends with Stan becoming a new carnival’s Geek, a role, Clem previously explained, that is offered to a drunk or drug addict along with shelter as they are tricked to perform until their death, a fact Stan knows all too well, is the perfect acceptance of a life examined and found wanting. Throughout the film, Stan’s life is full of moments that feel like misfortune that turn into opportunity. End of the line on the bus, finds the carnival. Nearly gets beat up by Bruno, gets offered a job. It’s not until he sees the opportunity at making even more money with Molly on the road, that it shifts. The idea to leave is born out of a desire to give Molly a life of luxury born out of their partnership. They succeed in that until Stan goes too far with Cate Blanchett’s Dr. Lilith Ritter. From that point on, Stan’s on the hook, headed to his own destruction, and he doesn’t even realize it.
If you dug Nightmare Alley in the slightest, you’re going to enjoy the bonus features. The worst part is that they only total about 25 minutes across the three, but each one will provide greater insight into the production. The first, “Del Toro’s Neo Noir,” is the more abstract of the three and the longest. This one allows del Toro, the cast, and crew to discuss their feelings on the making of the picture, the themes explored, and the various characters. This is the section that opens up the doors to everything else you want to know, so make sure to start here. The second feature, “Beneath the Tarp,” runs just over 8 minutes and narrows the behind-the-scenes information to the production and art design of the film. Personally, learning that del Toro built a working carnival seems like the most del Toro thing to do, yet it still surprised me. Creating such a set allowed for him to have more flexibility with shooting as there was no shot angle that would feel inauthentic or false (compared to building a set inside a studio where you have to be careful not to show the lights, false walls, or other technical pieces). It also made the set more immersive for the central cast and extras, who could truly feel like they were wondering the walkways of the carnival. The last featurette, and shortest at around 5 minutes, is “What Exists in the Fringe,” which focuses entirely on the costumes. There’re costume details that the audience will recognize whether in the theater or at home and then there are details that are just for the cast to be aware of, items which make their journey to their character easier and more fulfilling. In this featurette, costume designer Luis Sequeira walks you through all the details, both internal and external, he can.
For those hoping that the black and white version of the main feature, “Vision in Darkness and Light,” would be included with home release, I have some sad news: it does not appear to be available on either the physical or digital editions. A version of “Vision in Darkness and Light” did travel for a brief period post-standard release, but there does not seem to be any indication that it will be accessible beyond those screenings. If that’s something that interests you, I encourage you to hold out hope as films like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Logan (2017) and Parasite (2019) did receive home releases for their black-and-white editions after the initial home release, so it may just require time to make the conversion. Perhaps, if the film does well in any of the four categories it’s nominated in during the 2022 Oscars (Costume Design, Production Design, Cinematography, and Best Picture), some movement might shift things. Only time will tell in that regard.
To quote Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, “If you displease the right people, the world closes in on you very, very fast.” This statement by Dr. Ritter can be applied to a variety of situations, but none so unmercifully as those involving people who disagree with you. For some, needing to see the original Nightmare Alley adaptation was a prerequisite for any critic to provide their thoughts on del Toro’s creation and have them taken seriously. To them, the fact that I couldn’t pin-point the cause of the distance between the picture (which I see as masterful) and myself implied a certain skepticism in my thoughts on the film. Even after a second watch, I can clearly identify the wonder of del Toro’s production, but I can’t see why the film as a whole doesn’t work for me. It clearly connects with others and, to them, I say “enjoy!.” I do think the ending is pitch perfect, placing a lovely button on the themes of the rise and fall of man via hubris, while also showing how Stan has realized that taking the position of the Geek is a fitting punishment for all he’s done. Viewed frontward or backward, del Toro’s story is clear and complete in addressing the question Clem barks as Stan walks into the carnival: “Is he man or beast?.” He is both and he knows what he’s done to straddle the line. I can admire that, even if his tale does nothing for me on the whole.
Nightmare Alley Special Features:
- Del Toro’s Neo Noir – Writer-director Guillermo del Toro and his standout cast decipher the dark, complicated world of Nightmare Alley. The filmmaker reveals how his take on noir is rooted in classic cinema but offers an accessible, modern narrative. (11:19)
- Beneath the Tarp – Production designer Tamara Deverell and her talented team skillfully delivered both a decaying traveling carnival world and a gilded Art Deco high society with striking visuals. We explore how this design supported del Toro’s genre-bending filmmaking. (8:26)
- What Exists in the Fringe – Costume designer Luis Sequeira unravels his collaboration with Guillermo del Toro and reveals the symbolism that’s constantly at play in the film’s carefully crafted wardrobe’s design. (5:23)
Available on digital March 8th, 2022.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD March 22nd, 2022.
For more information, head to Searchlight Pictures’s official Nightmare Alley webpage.
Categories: Home Release, Recommendation
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