Combustible Celluloid
With: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany, Linden Porco, Mark Povinelli, Peter MacNeill, Paul Anderson, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Jim Beaver, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, David Hewlett, Sarah Mennell, Mike Hill, Dian Bachar, Troy James, Matthew MacCallum, Samantha Rodes
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan, based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
MPAA Rating: R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language
Running Time: 150
Date: 12/17/2021

Nightmare Alley (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Dread and Carny

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Guillermo Del Toro follows up his lovely The Shape of Water with its opposite; this psychological terror is as lush on the outside as it is diseased on the inside, a bitter, brutal dose of dark fate.

Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) leaves a mysterious crime scene and wanders out into the world. He comes upon a carnival and watches a disturbing geek show, before proprietor Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe) gives him a job. He begins working with clairvoyant Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn), whose drinking is beginning to endanger their act. He also meets Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) and suggests a fresh twist on her act as a human electrical conductor.

Pete agrees to teach Stan the elaborate code he created that allows Zeena to be "clairvoyant." When Pete dies after drinking wood alcohol, Stan and Molly hit the road. Their nightclub act becomes very successful, but everything changes when Stan meets psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Stan and Lilith secretly team up and plan to do "spook shows" on Lilith's wealthy clients, i.e. pretending to speak to the dead. But Stan has been warned against doing this, and for good reason.

Based on a 1946 novel (and previously filmed in 1947), Nightmare Alley is a strikingly gorgeous, expertly-constructed work that does not go down easy, and is only recommended to those with strong constitutions. The movie's biggest flaw is its inflated running time, mainly devoted to intricate details of the con game. It's interesting stuff, but it's a very long time to sit with the Stan character as our main entryway; he is thoroughly repellent from top to bottom. Cooper's performance is unfailingly devoted to the story, but perhaps a smidgeon more of his natural charisma might have been allowed to leak through to soften the blow.

The movie is nevertheless filled with treasures both in construction and lighting, from the deliriousness of the carnival — as well as Dr. Ritter's ridiculously opulent office — to virtually every single onscreen performance. Del Toro's favorite actor Ron Perlman plays a wonderful circus strongman in just a few scenes, hanging around with "Brofo the Small" (Linden Porco), who is probably one-fifth his size. Actors like Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., and Tim Blake Nelson show up in the smallest of parts delivering true delights.

Nothing can counterbalance the story's sense of doom, however. Film noir was never meant to be cheery, but it was supposed to tap into a feeling of something in the air of America, something lost. Nightmare Alley taps directly into the jugular.

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