Nightmare Alley

Searchlight Pictures

Reviewed for by Abe Friedtanzer

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Writer: Guillermo Del Toro and Kim Morgan

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

Screened at: Blakeley Theatre, Fox Lot, LA, 12/1/21

Opens: December 17th, 2021

People are often mesmerized by the things they can’t understand. Seeing a feat performed that doesn’t seem inherently possible makes it all the more mystifying and appealing, and encourages curious onlookers to come back for more. While certain stories involve supernatural abilities, there is usually a more realistic explanation for the fantastical, a trick played on both the eye and the mind to convince them that an incredible thing is actually happening in front of them. Nightmare Alley spotlights the artful deception and the ways in which convincing the gullible can have cyclical consequences.

Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) joins up with a carnival in the 1940s, serving as an assistant for the geek show run by Clem (Willem Dafoe) and learning how to pick up on clues offered by audience members from psychics Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn). Enchanted by Molly (Rooney Mara), a woman who electrocutes herself each night in front of gasping crowds, Stan is convinced he can make a go of it without anyone but her by his aside. His successful act quickly makes him cocky, prompting him to undertake a dangerous job involving a rich, powerful client (Richard Jenkins), working with the help of a cunning psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett).

This is a remake of the 1947 film of the same name, which was based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham. This new version is notable right out of the gate because it serves as Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning direction of The Shape of Water. Like that film and his previous beloved dark fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth, he creates a mesmerizing and sometimes horrifying world here filled with questionable characters and precious few with truly honorable motivations trying hard not to be corrupted by the self-serving interests around them.

Unlike those two films, however, there’s no paranormal content to be found in this film. At first glance, it may seem like the carnival workers must be aided by some incredible, otherworldly force, but all is gradually revealed to be an illusion. Stan in particular delights at figuring out how the tricks are done and then explaining, later on, to those who want to listen, how he was able to successfully con someone who should never have believed his act were if not for his brilliance. Such hubris might be the root of Stan’s downfall, but that lies not in his eagerness to boast but rather in the mistaken notion that he can accomplish anything, no matter how large the mark.

The absence of real magic doesn’t diminish from the impact of watching this engrossing film, which earns its place among Del Toro’s cinematic creations. Its title indicates a fearsome horror movie, and while there are moments of disgust and suspense to be found, it never approaches terror. The ideas are far more chilling, and there is little light to be found in any of the film’s storylines. Molly seems to be purest and most kindhearted, and her happiness feels unattainable given the dark direction of Stan’s insatiable desire for power and reverence.

Nightmare Alley boasts tremendous production values, particularly its astonishing sets and costumes. It’s easy to feel trapped and enveloped within the world that Del Toro and his dedicated artisans have created. His cast is equally skilled, with a particularly haunting and spectacular turn from Blanchett, whose first moments on screen are electric and only become more interesting as she continues to appear. This film doesn’t pretend to be optimistic or concerned with anything other than a miserable arc for its characters, and that encompassing darkness may be off-putting to some. But there is also something undeniably involving and inescapable about this 150-minute immersion into man-made madness.

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in the film Nightmare Alley. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

150 minutes

Story – B+

Acting – B+

Technical – A-

Overall – B+

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