Review: Nightmare Alley (2021)

Director: Guillermo del  Toro

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette

Roll up, roll up, ladies and germs. Spare a dime and gain entry, feast your eyes upon the eighth wonder of the world. Aye, a strange beast and that’s for sure! What ye see in here, I say to thee, you’ll give your sweetheart nightmares as you whisper tell of it to her in the dark, clutchin’ one another full of fear and trembling! You for the memory; her for the vision of it wrought clear as day from the telling. Come hither, come all! See a wretch thine eyes won’t scarcely believe true, but for the seeing itself. For seeing is believing, folks! Seeing is believing…

Cinema’s own carnie barker Guillermo del Toro returns from Oscar glory with a retelling of William Lindsay Gresham’s ripping yarn with a sting in the tail. Running a good 50 minutes longer than Edmund Goulding’s 1947 version, del Toro uses the extra time to flex and embellish; to play ringmaster, if you like, with us all gawking in the stands.

Take a cursory look back through the Mexican filmmaker’s offerings to date and you’ll know just why this story appeals so keenly. He has a child’s love for stories where the fantastic and the morbid coalesce. Wildly out of step with present cinematic trends, it could be that he’s had to wait until the success of The Shape of Water to bring a film like this to fruition.

Bradley Cooper stars as Stanton Carlisle, a tight-lipped vagabond who, in 1939, crosses paths with a touring carnival, grabbing work as a roustie (odd job man, to the rubes). A grifter with charm to spare, he takes up with both tarot reader Zeena (Toni Collette) and electric lady Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), all the while dreaming of something bigger. A born hustler and staunch tea-totaller, Stanton has a masterplan to pilfer from the carnival the secrets of a mesmerist act and, with Molly in tow, transform it into a high class sensation.

del Toro applies his expected gloss to the picture, conjuring something handsomely noirish, rich in colour and contrast. Nightmare Alley is at it’s most romantic when imagining the working life of the carnival, and the film’s first hour is an embarrassment of riches in which hucksterism and magic seem to crackle side by side. It helps that he has such a cast, which also includes the likes of Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman and David Strathairn, all of whom bring weight and texture to their varying roles.

The fire in the belly of this opening stretch is contrasted with the winter chills of the second half; a wintry tapestry in which Stanton’s efforts to apply the same grifts among the social elite come a cropper. Here Cate Blanchett vamps like Barbara Stanwyck at her most seductively cruel, while a distractingly bewigged Richard Jenkins takes on a persona the polar opposite of the one tasked to him in The Shape of Water.

del Toro recalibrates to evoke the best of ’40s film noir and melodrama, but the icy detachment of the film’s later stages mutes the magic somewhat. Nightmare Alley remains technically impressive right til the end, but it comes to feel so evident where del Toro’s true heart lies (with the carnies in the midway), that the film’s cooling off transfers to the audience somewhat. It doesn’t help any that he manages to both over-egg and under-cook the story’s aforementioned final sting.

At the centre of this macabre tragedy is a struggle against imposter syndrome. While Stanton Carlisle is driven by greed and pride, he wrestles genuinely with wrenching something worthy out of his innate creativity. Circumstance and opportunity have rendered him a gifted confidence man, but his way with a pencil and with people suggest the makings of a better man that he can’t quite grasp. Molly sees it, perhaps, but her rose-tinted spectacles also sharpen the cracks.

Both Cooper and Mara collect the most screen time and inhabit their roles well, but it’s the attractions on the sidelines that prove most memorable; Strathairn, Dafoe and Blanchett particularly. del Toro’s leisurely approach to the tale belies his closeness to it; this is so clearly a labor of love for him. So happy is he to luxuriate in the moments, he allows his Nightmare Alley to coast around corners. In the end, perhaps, there is too much between the moment we see the gun and the point at which it is fired.

Or, maybe, as a tale told before, we’re too well versed in when and how the bullet hits. Like Molly, who has accustomed herself to the jolt of the electricity she allows to course through her, we’re a little too accustomed to that which is supposed to shock.

This remains an incredibly handsome, well-mounted production, of which all involved should be proud. Eminently engaging in the moment but, like a huckster’s trick, geek show or fortune teller’s promise, a little less than magic in the aftermath. Now, where are those HBO Carnivàle boxsets? I feel a re-watch coming on…

6 of 10

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