Nightmare Alley (2021)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan (script), William Lindsay Gresham (novel)

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Holt McCallany, Mary Steenburgen, Mark Povinelli

Producers: Bradley Cooper, J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro

Music: Nathan Johnson

Cinematographer: Dan Laustsen

Editor: Cam McLauchlin
Cert: 15

Running time: 150mins

Year: 2021

What’s the story: Drifter Stan Carlisle (Cooper) finds work with a travelling carnival. After learning the art of mentalism from Zeena (Collette) and Pete (Strathairn), he shoots for the big time with Molly (Mara). Can the alluring, enigmatic Dr. Lilith Ritter (Blanchett) help him achieve his ambitions?

What’s the verdict: Guillermo del Toro’s first movie since his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water arrives as a perfect antidote to all those screen-hogging blockbusters. An irresistible blend of John Ford, Fritz Lang, Sigmund Freud, film noir and a whiff of del Toro’s beloved Fantastic, Nightmare Alley is enthralling, shocking and beautifully realised.

In adapting William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, previously turned into a 1947 noir, del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan use the generous 150-minute runtime to immerse audiences in the lives of vividly created characters. The film’s first half allows scenes to breathe beneath the vast open skies of rural, pre-WW2 Depression hit America. Melancholy and desperation hang in the air, but del Toro succeeds in creating a warm, though oddball family set-up.

There is the maternal Zeena and her drunken paramour Pete, who teach an eager Stan the ropes of mentalism. The winsome Molly’s delicate appearance belies a tolerance for electric shocks during her act. Her protectors, Bruno (Perlman) and The Major (Povinelli), are unafraid of displaying their dislike for Stan, a man who to them reeks of opportunism.

Overseeing everyone is Clem, and here Willem Dafoe uses his gimlet-eyed grin to chilling effect as someone comfortable with a talent for exploitation. Clem will happily turn desperate drunks into “geeks,” debased men who eat live chickens and reptiles for gawping punters. Although, the “freak show” element of this “carny noir” is largely, and politely kept offscreen.

At the increasingly dark heart is Bradley Cooper. He does a good line in callow enthusiasm as Stan enthusiastically learns his trade. As he realises the riches available in duping the bereaved, those matinee idol looks harden as Stan manipulates characters for a bonanza payday.  

When the big time beckons for Stan and Molly, Nightmare Alley forsakes rolling landscapes for the concrete jungle of New York, tightening both pacing and tension. As with previous del Toro films the real monsters are the most well-tailored, and courtesy of Luis Sequeira’s costumes they sport some dapper threads.

Like the best film noir, a delicious air of damnation and cyclical torment hangs over the story. The pleasure comes in seeing how the pieces fall inexorably into place. While del Toro keeps the supernatural at bay, he cannot help but tease the possibility some characters walk between worlds. What is real and what is theatrics is left for the audience to decide. The director’s penchant for wince-inducing violence also enjoys briefs bursts of mayhem – bone fragments in the knuckles anyone?

Characters in New York are as memorable as in the carnival. Blanchett’s magnetic presence makes her psychologist a model of insouciance and suggested menace. Riffing on its 1930 and ‘40s setting, the film leans into its black-comedy Freudianism, and it is refreshing to see Mother-blaming set to one side in favour of a parade of Daddy issues.

Elsewhere, Richard Jenkins is broken and formidable as a powerful man with skeletons in his closet.  Indeed, this may emerge as the year’s best cast film, with Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Mary Steenburgen and an unrecognisable Paul Anderson also appearing.

A box office disappointment in the US, maybe this is too downbeat to draw big crowds in these pandemic times. We predict it will not be as widely embraced as del Toro’s fishman love story. Rather it will likely join Crimson Peak as a movie from the maestro that over time attracts a passionate fanbase. Getting in early is highly recommended because Nightmare Alley is a great start to 2022’s movie-going.

And, we still have del Toro’s animated take on Pinocchio arriving later in the year. Dreamy.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
Podcast: The Movie Robcast

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