Review: Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro | 149 minutes | crime, drama | Actors: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Mark Povinelli, Peter MacNeill, Holt McCallany, Paul Anderson

A motley crew of TV psychics still picks up phone calls with messages from the afterlife. Almost certainly the gullible is misled, but blinded by hope for answers, the hard-earned money has already been sent. In Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’, the fairground precursors of the TV swindlers trot out. Specifically, the film is about the dream escape and nightmare of Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle, a poor slob who during the economic depression in the United States works his way up from a fairground customer into a successful medium of the wealthy American elite. Del Toro’s book adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name is methodical in its ferocity, at times melodic about fairground life and above all a ruthless look at the ambitious man. The archetypal rise and fall story won’t completely shake the audience, nevertheless this tragedy of fate draws you in with its careful construction and visual flair.

The cast of ‘Nightmare Alley’ is overflowing with Oscar winners. Bradley Cooper plays the lead role of Stanton “Stan” Carlisle with great precision and guts. Cooper is credible as someone who craves success and wealth, but less of a pompous medium. He comes across as too docile for that, in any case a provocateur. Rooney Mara plays Stan’s sweetheart, Mary Elizabeth “Molly” Cahill, and does so quite well. However, her character is given little leeway and eventually comes across as one-dimensional. Sadly, this also applies to Toni Collette’s Zeena Krumbein. The most spectacular performance arrives later in the film. As if this villainous character was made for her, Cate Blanchett in the role of psychiatrist Lilith Ritter blows almost everyone off the stage. Lilith is a mastermind, plays the highest game in ‘Nightmare Alley’ and finds a formidable partner in Stan. Should you long for a lesson in Machiavellianism, lie on the couch with Lilith.

Although Del Toro’s modern film noir is more realistic than his previous work, think of the monster romance in ‘The Shape of Water’ (2017), the supernatural also has an important place in ‘Nightmare Alley’. Stan’s story is most intriguing and unpredictable when he lets himself be carried away in the role of medium, somewhere between emotional truth and deceit. In addition, he struggles to the very end with how the cards are shuffled in front of him.

‘Nightmare Alley’ not only transports you with oppressive imagination and suffocating intrigue to the interwar period, but also uses casting curiosities as a bridge to the Hollywood of yesteryear. Del Toro saved a cameo especially for Romina Francesca Power as a spectator of one of Stan’s performances. This 70-year-old woman is the daughter of Hollywood star Tyrone Power, who died prematurely, best known for his adventurous lead roles in pirate and costume films in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1947, under the direction of Edmund Goulding, father Power, in his own words, once played Stan in his favorite book adaptation.

The ‘Nightmare Alley’ from more than seventy years ago, shot in black and white, still stands as a rock and is barely inferior in grimness to its modern counterpart. Although the backbone of the story is similar, Del Toro’s film adaptation is remarkably less talkative than Goulding’s. However, Del Toro does offer more explanations about the motivations of the various characters. It therefore makes the latest film adaptation less ambiguous and thus there is less for the viewer to guess. Incidentally, Del Toro firmly claims that his ‘Nightmare Alley’ is not a remake of the 1947 film version (poetically titled ‘The Street of Lost Souls’ in Dutch), but a reinterpretation of Gresham’s novel.

All in all, director Del Toro grants the story, especially in the first part, the rise of Stan, the space to breathe and nest comfortably. It is impressive how the fairground life is depicted in detail. You wander with Stan in a world of wonders and horrors, and the occasional clumsy family scenes. However, the second half, pride before the fall, is unceremoniously cruel in nature, with the explicit violence being remarkably gratuitous. While this approach deserves awe, the film’s second part is so chill and calculated that “Nightmare Alley” doesn’t quite land emotionally. Nevertheless, his message that the pursuit of power and money corrupts the soul is still relevant.

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