Nightmare Alley (2021) Review

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Carnival Magic

In 1939, Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) begins his journey in “Nightmare Alley” (2021): 8 out of 10: by hiding a corpse and setting a house ablaze. Seeking refuge, he finds himself in a traveling carnival, where he encounters a bizarre geek show and meets Bruno (Ron Perlman), the strongman, who offers him a temporary job. Stan soon becomes entangled in the carnival life, working with Madame Zeena (Toni Collette), a clairvoyant, and her husband Pete (David Strathairn). As he learns the tricks of their trade, Stan becomes infatuated with Molly (Rooney Mara), another performer.

Despite his initial plan to leave with Molly, Stan’s ambitions lead him to stay and learn the ways of cold reading and manipulation from Madame Zeena and Pete. When Pete dies under suspicious circumstances, Stan’s skills save the carnival from a police raid, earning him respect and influence. Molly eventually agrees to leave with Stan, and the two embark on a new life together.

Two years later, Stan and Molly have reinvented themselves as a psychic duo for the wealthy elite. However, Stan’s obsession with perfection strains their relationship, and their success attracts the attention of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist intent on exposing their deception. Stan’s ego leads him to outwit Ritter and impress a prominent judge (Peter MacNeill), further fueling his delusions of grandeur.

As Stan’s greed grows, he forms a dangerous alliance with Ritter and descends into alcoholism. Their scheme to scam a wealthy client goes awry when Molly’s disguise fails, leading to a violent confrontation that leaves Stan alone and desperate. Betrayed by Ritter and haunted by his past, Stan’s downward spiral leads him back to the carnival circuit, where he embraces his fate as a broken man.

In a tragic conclusion, Stan realizes that his pursuit of power and wealth has cost him everything, including Molly. Unable to escape his own demons, he accepts his fate as he descends into madness, finding solace in the familiar chaos of the carnival world.

The Good

The Good: Nightmare Alley pretends to be a rags to riches story. It is not. This sleight of hand, as great as anything you might find in a sideshow, is what gives the film its staying power. I often praise films for having flawed protagonists, but I have rarely seen one so delightfully flawed as Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle.

Cooper does the heavy lifting here and pulls off a fantastic performance. (Surprisingly overlooked during award season though Nightmare Alley itself garnered a best picture nomination.). The Art direction is fantastic, and it is wonderful to see a big budget noir like this.

I have not seen the original Nightmare Alley that this film is a remake of, but I look forward to it. A splendid story that tackles both poverty, mysticism nonsense, and psychiatry, of all things.

The Bad

The Bad: Guillermo del Toro seems to have all his actors in Nightmare Alley playing it low and close to the vest. (Except for Cate Blanchett, who got the memo, chewed it up, and did a spit take). This actually works to the advantage for such actors as Ron Perlman and William Defoe. I would not suggest, of course, either are prone to overacting mind you… cough… eye roll… cough. But both give excellent restrained performances, as does Cooper.

But then we have Rooney Mara. There is no chemistry between Mara and Cooper. On one level, that is okay. Cooper has various issues that would preclude him from having true feelings for anyone. On the other hand, however, it means the audience has no stakes on whether their relationship works out. I was more invested in that 14-year-old girl’s marriage to the drifter carney in Carnival Magic.

Mara’s issues are not just with her relationship with Cooper. She seems to project the charisma of one of the fancier settees later in the film. Rooney Mara comes across as furniture that occasionally talks.

The Ugly

The Ugly: When I heard Guillermo del Toro is making a movie that takes place in an old timey carnival thriller, my mind did not go directly to the noir Nightmare Alley (Which I had not even heard of before this film). No, it went to Tod Browning’s Freaks.

Knowing De Toro’s filmography with Guillermo del Toro with Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Hellboy, one could easily expect the freaks in the freak show turned up to eleven. Outside of Tim Burton, I cannot think of another director where the old timey carnival is so on brand.

So I am shocked how toned down the carnival is in Guillermo del Toro’s hands.

In Conclusion

In Conclusion: There is a plot twist at the end that would be hard pressed to surprise a five-year-old. (Hell, the title Nightmare Alley gives it away.). That said, the journey is well worth it. There is a lot of excellent media that makes good use of the sideshow. (Besides Freaks mentioned above, you have the Stephen King novel Thinner, the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and the HBO series Carnivale.) Nightmare Alley, though subdued, takes its place among the best takes on that storied subject.

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