[SPOILERS AHEAD FOR NIGHTMARE ALLEY]
“People are eager to tell you who they are.” Something along those lines is what Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) says to Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) in Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley (2021; in theaters). Carlisle, like all talented grifters, is good at reading people. We see who and what other people are in the interactions Carlisle has with them, but it takes the entirety of the film to see who, exactly, Carlisle is.
The ’40s, noirish setting of the film is perfect, complete with a pure love interest, Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) and a femme fatale, Ritter. The rest of the ensemble cast is impressive as well: Willem Defoe, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, and Richard Jenkins, among others. Even when it is not, it always seems to be either raining or overcast dusk. Fire, rain, and snow recur and rotate throughout.
It matches pretty well the 1947 film, but besides the more overt sexuality (although not explicit) and the gruesome violence, which would not have been allowed in 1947, the ending is the most significant difference. The 1947 film has Molly redeem Carlisle from his degradation (a scene which the studio head demanded, so that the movie did not end on such a dark note). But there is no such salvation in del Toro’s darker vision. (I haven’t read the book by William Lindsey Gresham, so I do not know how Gresham ends it. But Gresham was himself an abusive alcoholic, and the first husband of Joy Davidman, who later married C.S. Lewis.)
In del Toro’s version, this is not a redemption story, but a story of purgatorial recompense. There is no one who is left to take Stan’s side, because he has alienated everyone. He thinks he is the only one who sees through other people, but his confidence in his own abilities keep him from seeing that he is himself an open book to others. At first, Molly seems to think that she sees him truly, and that his mentalist act can remain simply an act of entertainment. Both Peter (David Strathairn) and Molly tell him to stay away from the “spook show,” in which the act begins to stray from mere entertainment and to interfere with much more serious emotions.
Stan thinks he can stay above the traps into which lesser men, such as Pete, fell. But that is exactly where his blind spot is. There are no men who can remain forever above those dangers. The signs, literally, are there when Stan is chasing down the first geek, and he enters a “fun house” that shows people their own inclinations toward the seven deadly sins. Lust and greed and wrath, in particular, come together to drag Stan away from Molly and toward, if not atonement in any real sense, a purgation.
I was “born for this,” he tells the carnival boss (Tim Blake Nelson) at the end, when he is offered the “temporary” job as a geek. In the original, Stan says, instead, “I was made for this.” That seems like a significant difference, emphasizing the different outlooks of the films: there is much more a sense of fate to Stan’s existence in del Toro’s version than in the 1947 version. Del Toro has us consider the inescapability of fate and just deserts.
The arc of Stanton Carlisle’s character does not allow us to feel much sympathy with him. We are perhaps, at first, naturally inclined to sympathize with Carlisle over the carnies. “People are eager to show you who they are,” and Carlisle does show us. But it becomes clear throughout the movie that he has very little morally redeeming value.
If we are going to sympathize with someone, we want to see something good in that character. But maybe we should not be too quick to dismiss Carlisle as too unlike us. His blind spots parallel our own in our inability to see the really dangerous aspects of our character.
Maybe that makes it a good movie for the transition from one year to another. It is only anecdotal, but it seems to me that looking forward to better things in the new year has replaced meditation on the previous year, especially meditation on one’s own life during the previous year. Besides the feast day of Jesus’ Name and Circumcision on the first of January, the Church has used December 31 also to take stock. The ending of anything is an opportunity to consider the end of our lives and the end of the world. Just as Compline has us pray for God to “abide with us at the end of the day, at the end of our life, at the end of the world,” so the end of the year can provoke us to pray for the same. It is a time for repentance, for examination of our own failings and blind spots, and a remembrance of God’s mercy in Christ. We who were both born and made as sinners have been remade as well.
Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley does not have room for anything other than “temporal and eternal punishment,” but our human inability to escape the bed we have made for ourselves does not mean there is no escape at all. It means only that the escape has to come from outside of us.