Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”) is often called one of the best directors of our time, and “Nightmare Alley” just adds to his long list of artfully-created movies — it’s nominated in four categories at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film seems to have mostly flown under the radar, not garnering any major attention even with its star-filled cast. I put it at the top of my list for the best films of 2022, which was met with many confused reactions; it seems like the majority of people have barely heard of it, much less gone out and watched it.
The movie follows Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, “A Star is Born”), starting with his arrival at a carnival, looking for work. While working as a carnie he meets and falls in love with fellow performer Molly (Rooney Mara, “Her”) and learns the skills necessary for the two of them to leave for New York, where he performs a mentalist act for the wealthy elite of the city with her help. In New York, they meet Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, “Don’t Look Up”), a high-class psychologist who decides to collude with Stan in order to scam her rich clients.
To fans of “Nightmare Alley,” Bradley Cooper not getting a nomination for his leading role as Stan is the ultimate snub. The movie is ultimately about how Stan’s greed and past sins cause him to dig himself deeper into trouble. Cooper really comes to embody Stan’s tragic and corrupt aura, to the point where I was becoming physically uncomfortable in my seat. I wanted to reach out and yell at Stan until he stopped making terrible decisions. This culminates in an ending where — without giving away too much — Stan is pushed to his limits and Cooper gives one of the best performances of the year. Passing Cooper over for Best Actor at the Academy Awards was a major stain on the category, especially given the film’s Best Picture nomination.
The acting in this movie is built up by the supporting cast: Toni Collette (“Knives Out”), Richard Jenkins (“The Shape of Water”) and David Strathairn (“Nomadland”) are only a few of the many supporting actors and actresses. Their characters each play a key role in Stan’s life, acting as pieces to a puzzle that is continuously being solved throughout the movie. They are what brought me back for a second viewing of the film. The first time watching the movie, you are focused on every step Stan takes further from safety — but on the second viewing, you notice how every single supporting character contributes to his journey, whether it be an unheeded warning to him not to go too far, or actions serving as the catalyst for his rise to wealth.
Perhaps the most subtle performance in the film comes from Blanchett. She plays a mysterious and enigmatic character who agrees to help Stan shortly after being publicly humiliated by him. Blanchett’s performance adds layers to her character that are slowly revealed throughout the film, culminating in a twist that, although obvious to the audience, shocks Stan to his core. Without revealing too much, as watching Blanchett unravel her complexities on screen is half the fun, she delivers one of the most attention-grabbing displays in the film.
On top of all of these great performances, you have Willem Dafoe (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”). He needs no introduction but deserves one. In the past I have called him a national treasure and this movie does nothing but reaffirm that belief. Dafoe plays Clem, a fellow carnival worker who keeps an insane man prisoner, pushing him to the brink of death in order to be shown off as his main attraction. He is the movie’s first introduction to moral decrepitude and shows the uncomplicated lack of empathy that is often behind someone’s corruption. Dafoe elevates the role with everything from his maniacal laugh to his casual absence of empathy. He cannot help but steal the show — as with everything else he is in — by giving the audience an early idea on how Stan will turn out, while still leaving enough ambiguity for the drama to stay compelling.
While it’s disappointing that the individual actresses and actors who made this movie great didn’t receive any nominations, the film truly does deserve all the nominations it did receive. It is a star-studded movie full of outstanding performances, while also paying homage to the old film-noirs that inspired it. One of this year’s best movies, it has only gotten a small amount of the credit it deserves; the film was beaten out at both the BAFTAS and the SAG awards, two award ceremonies that are often good indicators of Academy Award-winning potential. However, awards are certainly not the end-all, be-all of what determines if a movie is good or not, and “Nightmare Alley” proves that a truly fantastic film can easily go unnoticed.
Daily Arts Writer Zach Loveall can be reached at email@example.com.