Nightmare Alley

Posted: February 24, 2022 in Film reviews

Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, and Ron Perlman.

It’s 1939 and Stanton Carlisle (Cooper) buries a body beneath his home before setting fire to the house and heading out on the road. In need of work he links up with a carnival, working initially for a carny named Clem (Defoe), who runs the geek show, and explains to Stan how he lures alcoholics into working as a geek, a broken man who’ll eat live chickens.

Soon Stan is also working for clairvoyant Madam Zeena (Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (Strathairn). Their act relies on a detailed code that passes between them so that Zeena can appear to have psychic powers. Stan begins to pick up some of their skills, and suggests to Molly (Mara) a girl he’s fallen in love with that they could be successful running a similar act.

Two years later Stan and Molly are living in Buffalo and making money as a psychic act performing to the wealthier members of society. Everything is going well until Stan begins to cross the line that Zeena and Pete warned him about, that you should never fool people that the dead can talk to them. Soon Stan is embroiled with an icy psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter (Blanchett) and a dangerous man named Grindle (Jenkins) desperate to connect with his dead lover.

My second cinema trip of the year so far, and a corker of a film from Guillermo del Toro. I wasn’t familiar with the 1940s’ original or William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, but I tend to like del Toro, loved the noir aesthetic and the cast is great, so I thought it was worth giving a go, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It is a tad long, feels somewhat of a film of two halves and if you don’t figure out early on how it’s going to end, well, you probably just haven’t watched as many films as me, but in truth none of this matters because the film is a superb evocation of other times and other places, whether it’s the dirt and grime of the carnival, or the clean modernity of the city, and unsurprisingly there’s more honesty from the carneys than the city folks.

Del Toro’s direction and the cinematography are excellent. It’s a beautiful film to look at, even when it’s showing you something ugly, although the shift from the carnival to the city is a little jarring (but then maybe that’s the point.) From the dirt and grime of the carnival to the veneer of the big city, every frame looks amazing.

People have rightly pointed to Tod Browning’s Freaks from 1932, but I also felt the film had a curious kinship with Blade Runner once Stan ventures to the city. Blanchett’s ice femme fatale feels like a blonde Sean Young, with her coiffured hair and perfectly painted lips, and the art deco skyscraper she has an office in definitely feels like Deckard might walk in at any moment. There’s even a scene with a polygraph that evokes the Voight-Kampff test.

The cast are top notch, led by Cooper who’s come a long way since he was Sydney Bristow’s best mate in Alias all those years ago. He’s a very good actor, and has a rare ability to play both noble yet slightly shabby at the same time, he did it well in A Star is Born and he does it well here. However good the rest of the cast is, this is his movie, and it wouldn’t be half as good without him. 

Blanchett was born to play Lilith, cool and assured yet fragile as glass. Collette couldn’t put in a poor performance if she tried, and she and Strathairn make for an engaging couple. Defoe is very good as Clem, genuinely terrifying when he calmly explains how he grooms potential geeks.

Mara as Molly is perhaps lumbered with a character who’s less interesting, though she’s always important to the plot, and continues to provide a link between Stan and the carnival, even after they move to Buffalo. Credit also to Ron Perlman and Mark Povinelli as a pair of carneys concerned for Molly’s welfare.

As I say it is a long film, and towards the end it starts to feel it, and the shift from, carnival to the city is very noticeable. It’s fair to say I found the first half perhaps a little more interesting than the second, but the film does hang together well, it looks amazing, and the cast are great. It’s a shame it hasn’t done better at the box office, but I do think it’ll pick up some Oscars.

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