Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is a classic noir. There’s a morally ambiguous male protagonist with a good woman he should choose — and a seductive evil one he shouldn’t. There’s also a core of misogyny, though the film is unusually clear about how that misogyny is as much about male psychodrama and fear of unmanliness as it is about actual women.
Stan, we learn, has a sort of split in his soul — a gap that can’t be filled. Stan looks at Stan like a man looking in a funhouse mirror.
Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, the film starts with handsome drifter Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) joining a carnival as a laborer. He quickly becomes attached to a mentalist act and begins to learn the tricks of “mind-reading.” Soon he convinces good-hearted Molly (Rooney Mara) to abandon her electrocution act and become his assistant in a two-person show. They’re successful until Stan becomes entangled with the mysterious psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). With her help he starts to sell himself as a spiritualist who can speak to the dead. He finds a lucrative mark in the wealthy, paranoid Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). And then, as they do in noirs, things inevitably fall apart.
Lilith, who Blanchett plays with sensuously hard angles and an icy stare, is the femme fatale. But she doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the movie. The real antagonist is Stan himself. Or more accurately, Stan himselves. Stan, we learn, has a sort of split in his soul — a gap that can’t be filled. Stan looks at Stan like a man looking in a funhouse mirror.
In a movie that makes at least one explicit reference to psychoanalytic theory, Stan presents a classic Oedipal case. He’s locked in a love/hate relationship with older, powerful men as surrogate father figures. Pete (David Strathairn) the mentalist in the carnival who mentors him, the carnival owner Clem (Willem Dafoe), Ezra Grindle: they’re all daddies he must appease, destroy, and try to replace. But is he the powerful mentalist, with abilities beyond the mortal ken? Or is he like the circus geek, crawling around filthy in a cage, more animal than man, biting the heads off chickens in exchange for a taste of whiskey?
Bisecting Stan gives him depth and complexity. But it’s also a kind of shell game. Stan repeatedly explains that the way you fool a mark is by giving them what they want. And likely, movie-goers will see “easy on the eyes” Stan and want him to be the hero of a Horatio Alger, small-town-boy-makes-it-big narrative.
The movie encourages you to embrace the kind, eager version of Stan — who expresses sympathy for the geek and professes his eternal innocent love to Molly — as the real Stan. The Stan who lashes out in anger, or who accidentally poisons a mentor, or who casts women aside, has been led astray by that femme fatale. You root for him to destroy her, and realize his better, truer destiny.
Yet, Stan specifically says he is attracted to Dr. Lilith Ritter because they are both “no good.” And the further you go in the film, the more it becomes clear that the chronology of corruption is all wrong. Stan’s capacity for violence, deceit, and indifferent cruelty precedes Lilith.
The femme fatale then is a kind of projection or distraction. Lilith pokes around his mind as a psychiatrist. But she’s already also a symbolic figure in his dreams — not a person so much as a symbol of Stan’s own desire for power, for sex, for violence, and even for degradation.
Male degradation features less often on lists of typical patriarchal fantasies. But it’s integral to “Nightmare Alley.”
It’s not exactly a surprise that men are attracted to power, sex and violence. Male degradation features less often on lists of typical patriarchal fantasies. But it’s integral to “Nightmare Alley,” and the movie highlights how closely that desire fits with its more common compatriots.
Stan’s weakness when confronted with powerful father figures, with drink, and especially with Lilith, is an excuse. You don’t sympathize with the devouring, violent father. But a man turned into a weeping, crawling child elicits pity, empathy and what feminist philosopher Kate Manne calls “himpathy.” Just as the tears of accused sexual assaulter Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing helped cast him (with some watchers) as the wronged party, so do Stan’s tears at the denouement purify and vindicate.
There are noirs that reject misogyny and patriarchy, like Dorothy B. Hughes’ remarkable “In a Lonely Place.” “Nightmare Alley” is a faithful genre exercise rather than a subversion, and it uses the full panoply of noir tropes to make you hate Lilith.
But in the best carny tradition, del Toro shows you how you’re being manipulated even as he manipulates you. Stan the man and Stan the geek, strong and weak, trade places in plain sight, telling you it’s a trick all the while. And the trick is that he can’t lose, because when he does, he gets you to root for the poor loser against the woman who’s done him wrong.