Review: ‘Nightmare Alley’ 2021 (takes one to catch one)

The rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle.

After the death of his father, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) makes his way out into the big world, stumbling across a sideshow carnival. After watching “the geek show” narrated by owner Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), Stan accepts a work offer and ends up traveling with them. He becomes infatuated with the mentalist act performed by Zeena (Toni Collette) and her assistant Pete (David Strathairn), but he only has eyes for the innocent Molly (Rooney Mara), the carnival’s Electric Girl. With a passion for the performance but more a desire for power and wealth, Stan learns the routine and lures Molly to leave the carnival for the big city, reinventing himself and earning success. Unfortunately, an encounter with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchette) convinces Stan wealthier marks like Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) are ripe for the taking — with her help, of course — forgetting old Pete’s warnings: the dangers of taking “the spook act” too far.

A remake of the 1947 film taken from the book of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro took up the noir crime thriller to reintegrate the novel’s darker elements the original film omitted in its time. Echoing productions like Something Wicked This Way Comes without the supernatural elements and Dark City without the science fiction, the lack of featured creatures seems to go against type, the sole exception being a series of freak specimen jars for a dime museum. In a film without devil spawn, wicked fae, or any actual mythological creatures, is del Toro turning over a new leaf, or has he finally decided there’s no longer a need to disguise the fact that people are all the monsters the world could ever need?

Bradley Cooper takes to the 1940s era of this period piece like an alternate Indiana Jones when he first appears — not a huge stretch going from a self-destructive once-famous singer in A Star is Born to a self-destructive almost-famous mentalist here — while Cate Blanchette oozes femme fatale as she finds her light. There’s always a thunderstorm at the carnival’s edge waiting to claim it, and the city buildings exclusively cater to Art Deco styling with everything in rich tones of brown, black, and gold. Paired with a haunting orchestra score with a soft piano lead, del Toro weaves a tapestry that shuts out the modern world, a trap for the audience not unlike the one Stanton crafts for himself. The real distraction is knowing Carlisle is doomed, tempting the mind to wander elsewhere looking for a hero to care about, but the only point-of-view belongs to Stan.

Del Toro films often suffer from over-creation, putting so much detail into places and people who aren’t as important as the main story but suggesting there is, offering numerous tangents for the imaginative minds who dominate his fan base. When a key reveal by Lilith goes unexplained, viewers are welcome to wonder about its source, but there’s no further explanation coming for something so deserving of one. So, too, are character disappearances, allowing audiences to settle for guessing how the lives of others ended up… no matter how much they want to know. Carlisle, however, doesn’t to deserve to know, and since we are in his POV, we’re punished right along with him. It’s a cruel yet masterful trick, and you’ve already paid for your ticket, friend — no refunds.

Known for monster films like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Shape of Water, the director shows why people are the real monsters, and the difference is Nightmare Alley is filled to the brim with them. At a runtime of two-and-a-half hours — which appears to be the new norm this year — the film takes time to build to each explosive revelation and is not for the impatient. Enjoy the show for now, and let’s catch up again in Gibtown.

Nightmare Alley is rated R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity, language, and knowing what you were born for.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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