An In-Tents Circus Thriller
by Ask Vestergaard
It is very easy to romanticize the circus life. Nomadic caravans, colorful costumes, found family, living one’s life for art and art alone. Homes for the marginalized and the unorthodox, shows for the freaks to express themselves without torment. Plus, who doesn’t like to work with animals? If films like The Greatest Showman have taught us anything, it’s that circuses can be beacons of hope for the poor, the foreign, and the disabled.
That is, if one completely ignores the fact that founder PT. Barnum was a ruthless capitalist who abused his workers and quite literally rented Black people to parade them around as exotic exhibits.
photo courtesy of IMDb
And yet, it is also easy to demonize circuses as cesspits of animal torture and absolutely terrifying clowns. Oftentimes, they are portrayed as either one or the other: as celebrations of artistic freedom or bastions of cruelty. Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film, a brilliant adaptation of William Lindsey Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley, chooses both. It shows circuses in all their beauty—and all their callous inhumanity.
The first half of the film is firmly slice of life, introducing Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle to a travelling carnival lorded over by the stupidly charismatic Willem Dafoe as the also-stupidly-charismatic (whodathunkit?) Clem Hoatley. One of the first things we see is genuinely harrowing, and representative of some of the lowest depths of depravity that circuses once descended to. “Is he man or beast?” Clem Hoatley cries to an enraptured audience as he reveals a filthy, emaciated man who has been starved half to death. He throws the man a chicken, and the onlookers gasp as the man – the ‘geek’, as these types of ‘performers’ were called – eats it alive. Hoatley later reveals how he ‘breaks in’ his geeks: he takes in homeless drifters searching for a job and gets them hooked on opium, forcing them to debase themselves further and further for a bloodthirsty audience as addiction, starvation and cruel beatings break their minds. It is utterly horrifying.
And yet, we are also treated to moments of extraordinary tenderness. There are sumptuously painted carousels and funhouses, a pair of wonderfully human mentalists who are able to deduce nearly anything using subtle verbal cues, and so much more. It’s rare that you get to see circus workers just… living their lives, rather than performing. Contortionists are often typecast into the roles of hideous monsters who are covered in layers of prosthetics. Yet, in Nightmare Alley, you get to see a group of artists sitting around on their break, laughing and chatting, while a contortionist tap-dancer practices a routine and has some fun. It is such a minuscule moment, but I found it enormously impactful.
But no matter how incredible their art, how skilled their juggling or psychic conmanship is, no matter how warm their found families are, they always turn a blind eye to the agonized wails that permeate the camp when Clem Hoatley tortures another homeless person.
These are good people, but they value their employment too much to rock the boat. If Nightmare Alley is about anything, it is about the cruelties we are willing to abide by, or even commit, for the sake of money, whether it is just getting by or trying to make a fortune – and Guillermo Del Toro portrays this dynamic beautifully. Horrifyingly, but beautifully.
You can watch Nightmare Alley and other fantastic titles at the Belmont Filmhouse. Student & Young Person memberships are free and grant you access to all regular screenings at 5£, as well as a weekly exclusive screening on Tuesday at 2£. For more information, go to Membership | Belmont Filmhouse.