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Oscars 2022: New monstrosities in "Nightmare Alley"

Nominated for the Best Film category at the Oscars, "Nightmare Alley" is the new film by Guillermo del Toro. This is our review.

Still from the movie 'The Alley of Lost Souls'

Photo: YT-20th Century Studios

LatinAmerican Post | Juliana Rodríguez Pabón

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Leer en español: Óscars 2022: Nuevas monstruosidades en "El callejón de las almas perdidas"

"Nightmare Alley" is the latest film by Guillermo del Toro. It is based on the 1941 book of the same name, which had already been made into a film in 1947. In this new adaptation, Del Toro puts a darker spin on the story, bringing it up to date without changing the era for the modern audience. To continue with our special reviews of the films nominated for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, this is our review of "Nightmare Alley".

After filling his movies with good and cute monsters, this time Del Toro shows us the two most handsome and seductive monsters of his filmography. These are the protagonists of "Nightmare Alley", played by Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchet. Stan is a man who goes to work at a road circus helping with freak shows. There he finds several teachers. On the one hand, there is Clem, played by Willem Dafoe, who teaches him his cruel way of recruiting monsters to put on his circus show: they are alcoholics who would do anything to continue working in the circus in exchange for a little liquor. On the other hand, there are Zeena and Pete, a couple who have put on a show in which she acts as a medium. Pete teaches Stan all the tricks of a mentalist and warns him about the dangers of practicing this trade, since it is playing with the expectations of people. Stan falls in love with Molly, played by Rooney Mara, and they escape from the circus together.

Two years after appearing in New York on elite stages as a mentalist with Molly as his assistant, Stan meets Dr. Lilith Ritter, Cate Blanchet's character. The doctor, who is a psychoanalyst, challenges Stan and tries to unmask him. As he exposes her, these two characters begin to work together, each with their own agenda.

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Beautiful and evil monsters

Before, in other films by Guillermo del Toro, we have seen ugly and good monsters, who are excluded by society and discovered in their tenderness by an attentive protagonist. In one of the first sequences, we see Clem announcing a show in which a poor hungry man eats a live chicken. To call the audience to the show, Clem wonders "is he a man? Or a beast?", and with this he introduces the theme that fascinates Del Toro so much: monstrosity. This man, at the bottom of a well, is the victim of Clem's cruelty, who has him locked up in a cage, like an animal. This is precisely Clem's method of monstrifying the freaks in his circus.

However, although he resembles other Del Toro characters, this man is not the protagonist of "Nightmare Alley". The protagonists, on the other hand, are other types of monsters that this time are in the center of the stage and not at the bottom of a well.  They are Stan and Dr. Ritten, who are handsome, smart, wicked, insightful, and seductive. Stan and Dr. Ritter play, as Pete has predicted, with the hope of people.

Both use what people reveal on the psychoanalytic couch to manipulate and expose them. Under the precept that "everyone wants to be discovered", these two characters read their patients and viewers to take advantage of them. The really great thing about this movie is how these two monsters are also exposed at the end in their cruelty but also in their vulnerability. Stan's past, revealed at the end of the film, is recounted as the origin of his monstrification; something similar to what happens on the couch. And this will not be the only circular aspect of the film, which has a tail-biting ending.

Perception tricks and games

This film also joins others already awarded by the Academy in which perception games are used to talk about some other topic. Movies like "The Illusionist" or "The Great Trick" explore themes such as love, self-perception, deception, lies and betrayal through magic tricks. Then the most recent "The Illusionists" concentrates too much on the very subject of magic tricks and leaves no room for other explorations. In the case of "Nightmare Alley", the job of the mentalist is perfect to turn around the theme that interests Del Toro, monstrosity, to give it a new angle.

The film also has a perfectly chosen cast full of stars who have space to show off and who do not feel crowded on the screen , as has happened with other recent films with ambitious casts.

Will he win the Oscar?

We already saw Guillermo del Toro win the award for "The Shape of Water", which had a much less problematic and more moral message that the Academy liked. "Nightmare Alley" moves away from that facet of vindication of social outcasts . However, it is amazingly shot, the performances are exceptional, and the plot is not only clever but also exciting and suspenseful.