Entertainment

'Nightmare Alley' Is Overlong but Full of Grotesque Delights

Guillermo del Toro's latest movie swaps supernatural monsters for the human kind.

Searchlight Pictures
Searchlight Pictures
Searchlight Pictures

Mexican horror master Guillermo del Toro has made a three-decade career spinning tales of the otherworldly and the monstrous, so it was more than intriguing to hear that his latest film, Nightmare Alley, has no supernatural elements at all. The movie, co-written by del Toro and film historian Kim Morgan, is an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s classic 1946 noir novel about a crooked carny who hoodwinks people by pretending to have telepathic mentalist powers. It’s a dirty, grungy parable of greed and obsession that has been adapted once before as a 1947 drama starring Tyrone Power. Though del Toro has made a name for himself in Hollywood thanks to his frequent use of practical effects and increasingly bizarre creatures, what he really seems to love is genre itself, playing with it, tooling around in its dark nooks and crannies, creating something unexpected from something familiar. As his first feature foray into a story set firmly in our world-the real world-Nightmare Alley is a little too uneven to match the heights of del Toro’s best work, but it keeps enough of his bold, grotesque aesthetics to get under your skin nonetheless.

In 1939, grifter Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) takes a job as a carny at a traveling circus and quickly ingratiates himself with the other carnival residents, developing an attraction to a young girl, Molly (Rooney Mara), who pretends to channel electricity, and learning the craft of clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her drunk husband Pete (David Strathairn), who use cold reading to mimic supernatural powers of perception. When tragedy strikes, Stan and Molly leave the carnival and hone the craft Stan has stolen from Pete. He fashions himself into The Great Stanton, a mentalist who claims to contact the dead, clad in a tuxedo and a blindfold with a golden eye embroidered onto it. During one of his shows, he encounters the psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (an absolutely stunning Cate Blanchett), who tests his abilities, and the two of them make a deal to use her knowledge of her powerful and famous patients to better fake Stan’s “abilities.” But some of her patients are more dangerous than others, and Stan’s addiction to his newfound influence lands him in deeper, darker waters than he anticipated.

Searchlight Pictures
Searchlight Pictures
Searchlight Pictures

To reiterate, there are no monsters in this movie-except for the human ones. The circus itself, which comprises the first third of the movie, is a carnival of the macabre and the weird, making no mistake about the hard-luck squalor this collection of societal rejects lives in (which often put me in mind of Katherine Dunn’s circus-set masterpiece Geek Love). Whether you find enough to enjoy in this section will depend on your mileage for circus stories, but the really good stuff doesn’t start until Stan journeys into society and meets Dr. Ritter, every inch the femme fatale whose sheer screen presence dominates the entire movie. Her syrupy, regal line deliveries alone are enough to distract from the fact that the final message the movie builds to is muddled, though that, too, is saved by a killer final scene. Throughout it all, the movie uses the motif of the “geek,” a traditional circus attraction in the form of a person who eats the heads off of chickens for the guests’ entertainment, to mark Stan’s eventual descent into madness.

But-and it’s as if he can’t help himself-del Toro uses the sets themselves as his creature designs, employing the same care and attention to detail as he does for his monsters. In one early scene, a group of characters are searching for another through a system of half-raised circus tents, the striped fabric of the big top whooshing back and forth hypnotically in the breeze, as if it’s breathing. Pieces of machinery that make up the labyrinthine fun house creak and groan like they’re alive. Dr. Ritter’s office is a marvel of mahogany and brass, an art-deco explosion that frames every slinky, sharp-edged outfit Blanchett graces us with.

And it’s fortunate that the movie is stunning to look at, since it noticeably drags in its back half-two and a half hours is an endurance test no matter how good a movie is, and for a director with mostly slam dunks, this is a strange misfire. It’s difficult for me to predict how Nightmare Alley will be received. Those who don’t usually count themselves huge del Toro fans might be won over by the realism, while his diehards might long for the paranormal stuff. His whole “thing” just hits harder when the plot hinges on the intersection between human and inhuman. This morality play can’t help but feel a bit too simplistic for someone who once won an Oscar for his romance between a woman and a fish-person.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.

Entertainment

With One Orgy, 'Queer as Folk' Sets a New TV Standard

Peacock's reboot of the gay drama is finally giving queer disabled people some of the representation they've been seeking on television.

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Everything is ready for the orgy. The snacks and drinks are prepared, the disco ball is hanging, and there are mechanical lifts to help people in and out of their wheelchairs. As a few guests mingle and a go-go dancer gyrates, Marvin (played by Eric Graise) rolls onto the stage in his wheelchair to act as emcee. With the help of a sign-language interpreter, he kicks things off by announcing, “I know you’re all dying to tear each other’s clothes off, or to have your attendants take them off for you.” This is no ordinary orgy; it’s “#F*CK Disabled People,” the titular orgy from Episode 4 of Queer as Folk.

The Queer as Folk reboot, released this month on Peacock, is already far more diverse than the versions of the show that came before it: more racially diverse, more body types, more genders, and multiple disabled actors in key roles. Episode 4 pushes the envelope beyond almost anything seen on network TV. It’s the kind of representation that disabled viewers-and actors-have been dreaming about, centring on a queer disabled orgy and one stunningly beautiful sex scene.

Ryan O’Connell, who both co-writes and acts in the series, recognized the reboot’s potential when it came to better representing the lives of queer disabled people like himself. Key to this was sharing the screen with multiple disabled actors, including recurring appearances by Graise. Marvin’s presence had already sold O’Connell on the show when he began meeting with series developer Stephen Dunn, who had previously directed the coming-of-age movie Closet Monster. “He was like, ‘I also want you to star in it too,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, you want two disabled people?'” says O’Connell.

O’Connell grew up enjoying the sexy, soapy escapades of the American Queer as Folk, Showtime’s five-season adaptation of the British series of the same name. Amid widespread bigotry and the AIDS epidemic, the two popular shows offered a rare picture of happy gay life. But O’Connell longed for a reflection of himself on the screen. That impulse eventually led him to create Special, the Netflix sitcom about a gay man with cerebral palsy seeking love, sex, and friendship. Queer as Folk gives him another special opportunity: to tell sexy, soapy, positive LGBTQIA+ stories with an ensemble cast wherein he wouldn’t be the only disabled character. “I was so shocked in a way that was truly depressing, but it’s so rare as disabled people that we get any kind of inclusion whatsoever, let alone that there’s two of us,” O’Connell says. “Immediately, writing for the reboot, I felt a sense of ease.”For Graise, working on a show written by O’Connell was a “dream come true.” He continues, “I’d always said there needs to be a disabled person in the writers’ room, but I had no idea how significant it would be and how much it meant to me. And even Stephen Dunn has a disabled friend who Marvin is very much inspired by.”

Marvin is outgoing, even wild in his energy. When we meet him at a bar in the first episode of the series, he acts like he owns the place, flirting and serving up wicked verbal jabs with equal ease. Before we get to know him better, O’Connell’s shy, sheltered Julian Beaumont seems to fade into the background by comparison. Initially, he serves mostly as a foil to his more outgoing older brother, Brodie (Devin Way), who, in many ways, is the chaotic core around which the rest of the ensemble orbits. During the first three episodes, the brothers, along with Brodie’s on-again, off-again lover Noah (Johnny Sibilly), convert their shared New Orleans home into the epic party house known as “Ghost Fag.” It’s Ghost Fag that attracts Marvin, in the fourth episode, with the idea of hosting a queer disabled orgy. We don’t learn as much about Marvin’s background, but it’s clear he’s made himself a cornerstone of the LGBTQIA+ community despite the everyday ableism he faces.

Beyond the surface differences, Julian and Marvin couldn’t be more divergent. In addition to their differing disabilities (Marvin, like Graise, is a double amputee), they come from disparate economic classes and have radically contrasting outlooks on life. Julian protects his vulnerability with an introverted lifestyle and a carefully cultivated routine, while Marvin hides his behind a boisterous exterior. Just like real life, not all members of a marginalized group get along, or even have very much in common.

“I don’t ever try to feel the burden of representation because there’s no point-you have to write from a place of truth,” says O’Connell, who wrote Episode 4 with Alyssa Taylor. “It was really fun creatively to have these two disabled characters who are so wildly different from each other in how they conduct themselves in their relationship to disability and to sex and all those things, but also I think in Episode 4 it was really interesting to show their commonalities.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Both Marvin and Julian get laid over the course of the episode, but even before their clothes come off, the orgy scene fills the screen with something seldom seen on TV: disabled people in all their sexual glory. The scenario was inspired by a 2015 disabled sex party co-hosted in Toronto by Andrew Gurza, the show’s disability awareness consultant. After Gurza joined QaF, he mentioned the party in the writers’ room. “Mine was a lot more tame than this should be,” Gurza recalls telling them. “I’d like this to be a lot racier.”

Gurza even appears in a sex scene during the episode. “Being together on the show was an amazing moment,” says O’Connell, who cites Gurza as one of his inspirations. “He’s so honest and demands that his voice be heard and makes no apologies for that, and I try to do the same.”

As the orgy continues, both characters hook up with sex workers. It’s clear the actors and creators wanted to affirm that sex work is work. “It’s incredibly difficult work, not only the physical labour but the emotional space you have to hold for somebody to make them feel seen and heard and not judged. It makes me happy to showcase their work in a more positive light,” O’Connell notes.

Sachin Bhatt, who plays Ali, the sex worker hired by Marvin, agrees. He adds that his role is an all-too-rare example of a Southeast Asian man being sexual on-screen. “Anyone who’s not a cisgender, white male has many more mountains to climb,” Bhatt says. “So for me it was really exciting to play this sex worker because they wouldn’t typically cast an Indian for this role.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

While their relationship is transactional to begin with, Ali is respectful, playful, and caring throughout his interactions with Marvin. However, his feelings for his client intensify during Episode 4 as the pair connect alone in a room at Ghost Fag. “We bonded instantly,” Bhatt recalls of Graise. “It was very important to both of us that we get the intimacy and the vulnerability right.”

For Graise, who also appeared on Netflix’s Locke & Key, that actorly connection made the sequence what it is. “We spent a lot of time kiki’ing off-set and discussing what we wanted out of this scene for both of us. The scene wasn’t just about me. It’s also Ali exploring Marvin’s body in a way that he’s never explored with anyone before, and his insecurities and trepidations about interacting with a disabled body.”

Unlike previous interactions shown between them, Ali asks to top Marvin this time-and to interact with his body in new ways. “Can I touch your legs?” Ali asks. This was influenced by Graise’s own life, as someone he dated for three years realized he’d never touched Graise’s legs. After some tender caressing, Marvin wraps his thighs around Ali and they make love. Graise’s background as a dancer is evident in his elegant movement throughout the scene, which contrasts with some of the polished, more “Hollywood”-style sequences that appear elsewhere in the series.

“Sachin and Eric really fucking landed that plane,” O’Connell says. “It was everything I want in a sex scene, which is that it was vulnerable, it was tender, it was awkward, and it was sexy.”Beyond the new Queer As Folk, it’s rare for media to let disabled people be either queer or sexy. O’Connell cited a few other examples, such as Jillian Mercado’s role in The L Word: Generation Q or the work of playwright and actor Ryan J. Haddad, but it’s sparse overall. With one episode, Queer as Folk has set a high bar for other shows to follow, and the series as a whole demonstrates how disabled actors can portray real, complex, and flawed human beings.

“A cognitive dissonance happens when we watch things on our TV screens, where, all of a sudden, we want things to be simplified,” O’Connell says. “Isn’t it art’s job to reflect humanity accurately?

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Kit O’Connell is the Digital Editor at the Texas Observer, and lives in Austin, Texas with their spouse and two cats. Follow them @KitOConnell.

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