Nightmare Alley - Movie Review

Guillermo’s Neo-Noir
This all-star cast, illuminates a dark story, brilliantly executed.
This all-star cast, illuminates a dark story, brilliantly executed.(imd)
Published: Dec. 23, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 23, 2021 at 1:09 PM EST
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If you are a Film Noir aficionado, then you already know the importance of Nightmare Alley (1947) starring Tyrone Power, to the cinema canon. Both films, the first one directed by Edmund Goulding and this remake directed by Oscar winning Guillermo Del Toro are based on the infamous noir novel by William Lindsay Gresham. In the 2021 film, Bradley Cooper is the charismatic, but morally corrupt carnie, Stanton Carlisle. He’s not the only A lister involved: Toni Collette, plays medium Zeena, David Strathairn is her hapless husband, Pete, Willem Dafoe is the greasy carnie manager, Cate Blanchett is a high-powered psychiatrist, Rooney Mara is the electric girl at the carnival-other pedigree actors include Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen. The cast has 21 Oscar nominations between them.

A film noir isn’t only identified by its subject matter (usually bleak and featuring less than desirable characters) but by its cinematography and production design. Del Toro doesn’t disappoint, the world of carnivals in the bleak great depression era of middle America is incredibly vivid. The look of the film is magnificent and immerses the viewer in a dystopia where freaks and geeks (literally), and perpetual outsiders create a ghoulish dysfunctional family, where everyone is on the make. The film is best viewed on the big screen where the experience of universe can be maximized.

Grifter, drifter, Stanton (Stan) comes from a mysterious, dubious background and like many carnies, is looking for a place to belong. When he falls into employment with Clem Hoatley’s (Dafoe) show, first as a laborer, then eventually learning the Fake medium trade from Zeena and Pete, he finds a place and a purpose. Blessed with good looks (“you are easy on the eyes” – Zeena says), natural charm and unbridled ambition, Stanton with the help of his girlfriend Molly (Mara), rises to top as a big-time hotel headliner. If it weren’t for women, Stanton wouldn’t be where he is, and when he eventually hooks up with famed, high-powered psychiatrist, Lillith Ritter (Blanchett), he may have finally met his match. Their long con involves ultra-rich clients and false contact with loved ones that have passed. Stanton does this, despite being warned from first Pete, then Zeena that the “spook game” is dangerous and don’t play it. Stuff goes wrong.

Nightmare Alley (2021) isn’t really a remake at all, but a new and interesting adaptation of the novel. The film is so great to look at it, it would probably sustain my interest no matter who it starred, but Cooper’s complicated, doomed, charismatic huckster is nothing less than fantastic. You are rooting for him when you know you shouldn’t be; you want him to skirt his destiny. You will never know or understand him completely, he may never know or understand himself, but that doesn’t matter. Cooper never overplays his hand and is just mesmerizing to watch.

Admittedly the film builds slowly and unfolds like a novel. But like a great novel, you begin to experience the film rather than just watch it. Your involvement in the story will grow and grow and the ending, is brilliant. I have a theory that a film is only as a great as its last scene, or last shot. The filmmakers nailed it here.

The film will haunt you long after you leave the theater. Yes, it is dark, but it also very, very good.

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