The American Dream creates nightmares, says director Guillermo del Toro

SINGAPORE – In the psychological thriller Nightmare Alley, Stan, a confidence man played by Bradley Cooper, appears to have fulfilled his dreams. Starting with nothing, he has gathered wealth and influence.

Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro says Stan is a classic American character – “the man who is absolutely made of lies”.

“I find the American Dream an incredible generator of nightmares. Stan is two steps away from losing everything. He’s not shielded by the truth, about himself or others, so he’s always in danger,” says the 57-year-old Mexican director, winner of the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for his romantic fantasy The Shape Of Water (2017), in addition to two Oscar nominations for the fantasy horror Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Nightmare Alley opens on Jan 13 exclusively at Cathay Cineplexes.

The film is based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. Set in the 1930s, it tells the story of Stanton Carlisle, a drifter who becomes a handyman at Clem’s (Willem Dafoe) carnival, which has stage acts in addition to a freak show that offers an exhibition of human curiosities.

There, he meets performer Molly (Rooney Mara) and clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette). Later in the film, his path crosses with that of psychiatrist Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).

To Stan, these people are things to be manipulated, though he may discover that for some of them, he is not pulling the strings – they are. In the end, every character will have a reckoning with the truth. By then, it might be too late, says del Toro.

“It’s a movie about the idea of people finding themselves, in a moment of revelation,” he says, adding that the movie is structured to fit a rule of a good magic show. The audience starts out sceptical, with the skilled performer acknowledging that doubt, but working with it to win the audience over.

“I’m a student of magic and the rule says that the audience think they can’t be fooled, when they actually want to be fooled,” he notes.

The writer-director, speaking at a group interview, delved into what drew him to the genre of the non-supernatural noir thriller. He has been known for infusing his stories with magic, such as in the water deity of The Shape Of Water, the ghosts of Gothic romance Crimson Peak (2015) and the fauns and fairies of Pan’s Labyrinth.

He explains his long fascination with the noir genre in literature. They feature tough, violent anti-heroes, quite often detectives searching for truth in a corrupt world. He loves the hard-boiled fiction of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler because “it’s a genre that rips the lid off the pretence of normalcy”.

“They expose raw moral questions. They attract me because it reflects the time. They were sensitive to the anxieties of World War II and, in neo-noir, about the Vietnam War,” he says.

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