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“I Was Born For It” – Nightmare Alley (Film Review)

3 min read

Still Courtesy - Searchlight Pictures

Whatever happened with ? Ever since 2017, after garnering both the coveted Golden Lion and Best Picture award for his critically-acclaimed feature involving fish fornication, del Toro essentially left his directing position for an undefined hiatus. Whilst spending the majority of his time producing more intimate projects with fellow friends and peers, many have been speculating the exact return of del Toro's wizardry since the theatrical run of The Shape of Water. Lo and behold — just like in the same oddly situated footsteps as Paul Thomas Anderson and various other cinematic compatriots— del Toro has finally returned to the silver screen. The only difference this time around is the confines of pandemic filmmaking and his production's adherence towards safety protocol. 

Nothing is truly a roadblock for del Toro. proves once again that even with newly released regulations, his team can still more than accomplish a grand-scale epic to a similar magnitude as his other politically-charged features. As aforementioned, Nightmare Alley follows a familiar vein to his other precarious films involving monsters and the human condition. Whereas The Devil's Backbone followed a devilish allegory on the Spanish Civil War — with Pan's Labyrinth also serving as a spiritual continuation of recurring metaphorical beats — Nightmare Alley prominently highlights a western-based narrative. Set during the aftermath of the Great Depression and the start of the Second World War, del Toro's period aesthetic once again creates innovative juxtaposition to contrast against his eclectic set of anti-hero characters. As the bombs from Hitler's reign are heard on the other side of the hemisphere, del Toro instead focuses on the impotence and selfishness of his characters; creating a vile & amusing interplay of moral-ambiguity and psychological warfare in the process. 

Still Courtesy – Searchlight Pictures

's unhinged portrayal of Nightmare Alley's protagonist ‘Stanton' provides a parallel window into the unglamorous world of the middle-class American lifestyle during the late 30's. For the opening twenty minutes, Stanton is seen nearly completely mute; stagnant against the backdrop of tainted colours and soot-drenched walls. The absence and slow growth of dialogue translates beautifully on screen, as del Toro's characters slowly grow more accustomed to their guilt, their fantasies, and their positions of power. In moments, nearing the film's intense climactic push, del Toro implements micro-doses of droll satire; portraying the upper class as sociopathic socialites begging for the sweet release of spiritual absolution. The commentary is always present; as seances, tarot cards, and menial mind-games provide impact against del Toro's nihilistic worldview on the disillusionment of the American dream. Del Toro showcases a country in crisis; as its population is continuously belittled by its own monstrous social-economic cycle of trauma.  

Whilst the commentary is present in nearly every frame, del Toro's profound -homage unfortunately falters in the face of second-act grievances. There comes a point in the film's meandering act, where the focus and intent of del Toro's vision becomes lost in a sea of scattered ideas. Already stacked with various eccentric characters displaying a wide arrange of demented relationships and needless subplot business, Nightmare Alley frequently finds questionable footing with its centralised focus. The film's fine-cut presents a distasteful idiosyncratic relationship between performance and narrative; a film that lacks the same intimacy and blunt charge of del Toro's more profound social allegories. Undeniably sublime on a technical scale, del Toro's Nightmare Alley is a beautifully-constructed homage dedicated to a literary classic; featuring the occasional hiccup in its potpourri of violent class-conflict along the way. 

Still Courtesy – Searchlight Pictures
Nightmare Alley opens in select cinemas on December 17th, 2021

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