Film review: ‘NIGHTMARE ALLEY’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Given director Guillermo del Toro’s catalogue of ornate gothic horror movies, it seems a film about a carnival freak show would be a career imperative.  His latest movie, the confrontingly dark and creepy noir crime thriller, Nightmare Alley – which is a remake of the Edmund Goulding 1947 film – explores this unsettling and often sad world.

Bradley Cooper stars as mysterious depression-era drifter, Stanton Carlisle, who, at the film’s opening, appears to be fleeing a murder as he leaves a body and a burning house in his wake.  Desperate and starving, he takes work in a gritty travelling carnival.  At first he’s just a labourer but after befriending the resident psychic Zeena (Toni Collette) and her mind reading mentalist, chronic alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) he worms his way into their act.  Following a tragic event, he takes his newly-acquired mind reading skills and the carnival’s attractive female performer Molly (Rooney Mara) and heads to New York City to try and strike it rich as con artist psychic in the big smoke. Amid the wealthy high society suckers he manages to dupe, he meets the much savvier psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) with whom he forms a dubious, lucrative and possibly romantic partnership but all is not as it seems.

I’ve always had mixed feeling about Del Toro’s work.  While Pan’s Labyrinth was a mostly effective combination of gaudy monster movie, political allegory and exploration of a child’s psyche, others, like the Hellboy films, Blade 2 and Pacific Rim were clumsy, emotionally void and headache inducing.  Thankfully, Nightmare Alley, for the most part, draws the best out of Del Toro.

Like Wes Anderson, Del toro had crafted a singular cinematic style, one characterised by unique use of colour, menacing shadowy images and imposing neo gothic design.  Here, at least on a visual level, he matches and in many cases, surpasses his best work with nearly every scene a masterpiece of direction and cinematography.  Del Toro provides striking compositions and a stunning contrast between the muddy, grimy, decaying carnival and the gleaming art deco world in which Carlisle and Molly insert themselves in New York City.  Dr Ritter’s pristine, upmarket New York office, which is as much a world of illusion as the carnival, is a triumph of design.

This isn’t just an exercise in art direction and noir atmospherics, though, as Del Toro coaxes some fine performances from his leads.  Cooper gives Stanton an intriguing mix of self-doubt, ambition and arrogance and shows he’s at his best when playing ambiguous, psychologically flawed characters.  Rooney Mara makes an excellent foil as the wide-eyed but damaged Molly.  Blanchett is terrific as the ice-cool femme fatale Dr Ritter.  Her piercing stare, intimidating composure and the way she plays a cat and mouse game with Carlisle recall classic female performances from Hollywood of the 40’s.  In a smaller but still indelible role, Willem Dafoe is mesmerising as the exploitative owner of a deeply saddening carnival act known as ‘the geek’.  Thankfully, though, he like the other characters isn’t just some one-dimensional monster as even he shows flickers of compassion for the appallingly exploited performers.  There are, however, a few too many distracting big name cameos with Ron Pearlman, Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen popping in minor roles.

Some of the twists and plot developments that should have been knockout revelations here are a little predictable and the film’s mid-section is a times slow but stumbles like these detract only a little from the hypnotic power of Del Toro’s disturbing vision.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Drama/ horror.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Guillermo del Toro.

Release date: 20th Jan 2022.

Running time: 140 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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