Four years ago, if you had put Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley side by side to compare their awards prospects, you would have almost certainly bet on the latter to make a bigger dent. Nightmare Alley, the director’s latest, is without the supernatural elements that tend to act like oil mixing with the voters’ water; its cast is starrier and more proven in the Oscar department; and its vivid noir aesthetic carries a clean, impressive sheen of prestige, as opposed to Water’s more sentimental core. All to say, it’s not hard to see why, for much of this season, the film has led pundits’ predictions—sight unseen.
Because, of course, 2017’s The Shape of Water actually did win best picture, unlikely a contender as it might’ve seemed on paper. It feels only fitting that Nightmare Alley, the very last potential player to be screened this year, comes with such a high pedigree, both behind and in front of the camera. (Its cast features two acting-Oscar winners, plus six other previous nominees.) As if we haven’t had enough late-breaking shake-ups already.
Nightmare Alley screened simultaneously across the country on Wednesday evening, a huge event to rev up its campaign. (A virtual Q&A with the cast followed the main premiere.) The movie itself lands as a rock-solid, potentially across-the-board player, bolstered by impeccable craft below the line and a superb ensemble in top form. It’s a darker movie than Shape of Water, though, and one that feels relatively conventional by modern standards, with a classic kind of antihero wading through a murky, suspensefully engineered tale of ambition and deceit. It’s hard to see this one stirring enough passion to go all the way.
Adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel—which was previously made into a 1947 film—Nightmare Alley tells its story in two halves. The first is set at a traveling carnival, where we meet Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a loner fleeing a hazy and fiery past. He develops a talent for trickery and manipulation under the guidance of carnie couple Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn), who jointly run a psychic show. He refines his act with love interest Molly (Rooney Mara), before the back half of the film finds him in an arrangement with mercurial psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), which culminates in a plot against the wealthy tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).
The narrative moves smartly and efficiently, with del Toro’s knack for artful entertainment on full display; the brutal, sharp ending neatly ties its two parts together. Based purely on the movie’s particular merits, as a strong commercial play with high craft-category potential—a combination not shared by many contenders this season—it’s easy to see Nightmare Alley pulling in one of the larger overall nomination hauls, with above-the-line recognition most likely in best picture and director. (The adapted screenplay, which del Toro penned with his wife, the critic Kim Morgan, is also in play.)
As to whether it can establish itself as an overall front-runner, the film is lacking in emotional pull—a central quality of recent winners, including The Shape of Water—which will be a significant obstacle. And while the cast is terrific, there’s no obvious acting nominee. Cooper’s work gets stronger and deeper as it goes, culminating in a pitch-perfect closer, but it’s quieter for much of the run time, a hindrance in a best-actor field dominated by capital-b Big performances. Running in supporting, Blanchett similarly holds her cards close until a corker of a final scene for her character; on the male supporting side, both Strathairn and Jenkins are superbly affecting whenever onscreen—it’s just that there may not be enough of them. At this stage it feels equally wrong to say no Nightmare actor will be nominated and that any of them will. Blanchett, who is particularly fantastic, likely stands the best chance.
Nightmare Alley arrives at an interesting point for del Toro, a filmmaker known for top-tier supernatural works and who was more admired than decorated until recently. He’s also a true student of noir who’d been attracted to this title for a long time. He finally got his chance to make Nightmare Alley, and put his stamp on the material with flair. Now that he’s an Academy darling, how far can that take him?
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