Religion & Liberty Online

Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a dead end

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

It was supposed to shine a light on American susceptibility to con men and demagoguery. Instead, this Oscar-nominated film is strangely clueless about its own self-deception.

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Guillermo del Toro won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for The Shape Of Water (2017), a movie infamous for a leading lady so desperate for intimacy that she makes love to a fish, probably the best metaphor for the ongoing moral collapse of the women who like such movies. It was not blamed for its mediocrity as cinema, since it was supposed to be a story about how tolerant the lady is, unlike the fascist, intolerant white men of the ’50s. Del Toro even garnered a third nomination, for Best Original Screenplay—Hollywood is decaying from every point of view, from popularity to business to art.

That movie was treated as an answer to Trump. At the time, you’ll remember, liberal hysteria had reached then unknown peaks, regrettably. For my part, I think the movie was rather meant as a defense of poetry, of visionary artists who don’t really fit into American society, but it was a failure, both artistically and from the point of view of reaching its intended audience and making it aware of the need to defend art, much less persuading it to do so.

Nightmare Alley, del Toro’s new movie, however, is an answer to Trump. It’s all about the problem of persuasion in America, the way people’s secret vulnerabilities can be manipulated by con men who seem well meaning and who are more interested in private, personal suffering than a community can be. The promise of relief is, of course, almost an assurance of fraud, but people do get desperate. If they don’t feel loved by God, they might require occult love instead. This may be said to be the most respectable liberal argument against Trump—that he was a con man who found his marks in their moment of desperation. Accordingly, the movie is about demagogy, the great threat to democracy.

The screenplay is an adaptation of a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, which was first adapted in 1948 by Edmund Goulding, starring the wonderful Tyrone Power. The story is very sordid: A circus huckster becomes part of a very wicked scheme to dupe desperate rich people out of their money with promises to communicate with their dead families, only to fall prey to a scam himself, leading him to ruin. In 1946 it failed to find an audience, but it fits perfectly the elite taste of the 21st century, and the new movie accordingly got del Toro another Best Picture nomination.

The latest iteration boasts quite a cast: Bradley Cooper is the protagonist—he starts out a potential murderer (we don’t know exactly what we’re seeing in the opening) who somehow finds a circus run by the sleazy Willem Dafoe and the tough Ron Perlman, where he learns a cold-reading act from the adulteress Tony Collette and her accordingly drunkard husband, David Strathairn, and romances the sweet girl Molly (Rooney Mara), with whom he leaves for a more respectable act in big cities. He ultimately encounters and begins a scam with psychologist Cate Blanchett, who proves more glamorous and accordingly wicked than he is.

This is a man who sells his soul, though it’s not quite obvious why, except that success, glamour, and a life above the suffering and indignities of everyday life have an appeal to him, himself as desperate as his marks. Cooper is, as usual, mediocre, the characterization bound to be forgotten the moment the movie ends. Nor is it all his fault, since del Toro wants so much to conceal the character of his protagonist behind a combination of horror—it’s not a fun circus—and romance that he ends up with an uninteresting and ineffective concoction. One gets the suspicion neither actor nor director thought through the moral problem because both were trying to make a magical movie that nevertheless feels adult and serious, on the assumption that adulthood and seriousness are more or less the same as a taste for the sordid. On the other hand, Cooper got to talk in interviews about the tasteful nudity he needed to do to advance the plot, formerly a disgrace usually reserved for foolish women.

Speaking of whom: I’d say more about the actresses but they are largely wasted, trapped in ridiculous, cliched genre roles—you know, the innocent girl caught up in wickedness but who ultimately runs away (Mara), and the glamorous woman who’s more scheming and evil than even the protagonist (Blanchett, who often gives interesting performances but here bores and annoys instead, having lost entirely her intriguing quality in the process of becoming a temptress mastermind, a typical mistake for mediocre artists).

Nightmare Alley is a bad movie, but it offers an insight into American character we don’t often face: Americans are much more superstitious than we would suspect, given the power of religion in American society. From the liberal point of view, at least, people devoted to science should be immune to superstition, and yet they are often enough the most vulnerable to it. Why should that be? There must be a secret America—the America of the circus—where desire leads to dreams and, accordingly, nightmares, a place where the gullible and the wicked inevitably meet.

Nowadays, we have a different name for this problem: fake news or misinformation, to fit the vulgarity of our elites. Americans are all committed democrats, to the point that the poor often defy the rich and the rich feel no moral responsibility for the poor. This breeds a kind of independence, or skepticism—nobody wants to be a sucker, yet success on this score is dubious. Moreover, political authority in America takes on the vast power that comes with the population, the economy, the technology, and even the continental span of America. Accordingly, it is rare to find dissent from the majority, which is understood to be the nation in motion, deciding things, moving on to the next problem. But it seems that individual skepticism and conformism to the majority create a massive moral weakness, an absence of character that makes people personally vulnerable, leading to the many mad things we see—it used to be cults, occasionally murderous or suicidal or both, now it’s online “subcultures,” which are considered by elites a deadly threat to Progress. Either way, many Americans go crazy in a way the rest are bound to ignore until they are forced to notice.

This is the weakness Nightmare Alley addresses in showing how scamming poor and rich, simpletons and sophisticated, indeed honest people and scammers, is all the same. After all, rich people did believe electricity released occult powers to commune with the dead; I promise you many now believe the internet is an oracle. Rationality is far rarer than we like to admit, as our political madness suggests. Once we also abandon morality and look at ourselves as purely rotten, we’re as good as done for! This is the connection between the very uninteresting characters, who are without exception weak and vicious, and the remarkable political ambition of laying bare how a very vulgar, if attractive, man could conquer respectability and even piety on his way to the top, despite all the rules, habits, and even laws that separate poor from rich, ordinary from elite in America.

But this suggests circumstance—mostly chance—is what stands between Americans and their fantasies turning suddenly dark. To the extent people feel sympathetic to the characters, they imply that we are all the same, all living in fantasies, which is both silly and very moralistic, but it’s the only basis on which the movie holds any interest. But if you stop and ask yourself from what standpoint one could morally and intellectually look at America this way, you end up with nihilism. The charm of the movie has to do with playing with this dark mood, but Nightmare Alley is much more of the character of the crazy stuff that corrupts the American mind than an antidote to it.

My series on Oscar movies and the artists’ visions of the past is now at an end. The better movies make the most of selective nostalgia, showing what was good in the past that we may have forgotten; the bad use the past as a kind of metaphor, as though rewriting the national memory might mean changing the national character. National memory is tied up with cinema, of course, so you can see why artists might feel responsible—or tempted. The purpose and character of art in a democracy is at stake in each of these movies, which makes them worth noticing, but not necessarily lovable or even watchable, really.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.