Nightmare Alley (2021)


When charismatic but down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) makes an impression on clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her has-been mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn) at a traveling carnival, he creates a golden ticket to success, using his newly acquired knowledge to defraud the wealthy elite of 1940s New York society. Stanton prepares to deceive a deadly businessman (Richard Jenkins) with the help of a strange doctor (Cate Blanchett), who may be his most formidable opponent yet, with the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) by his side.


Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a natural-born conman who we first meet torching his family house, based on a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham (originally brought to the cinema by Edmund Goulding in 1947). Stan joins a traveling carnival to escape the past, where he befriends Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), a clairvoyant whose act is based on a complex code devised with her drunken husband, Pete (David Strathairn).

Cooper's charismatic huckster, sensing a lucrative future in mind-reading, is soon on the road as "Master Stanton," with his new girlfriend, Molly (Rooney Mara), as his assistant. Our antihero jumps at the chance to sell his soul when he meets psychotherapist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, channeling the femme fatale spirit of Claire Trevor) and a guilt-ridden Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins, sinisterly underplayed).

Del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan drew influence from a variety of sources, including William Wellman's harsh Depression-era fable Heroes for Sale and Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel, which had artifice-laden sets and Hopper-esque, impressionistic lighting. They also looked to Antonioni's profoundly depressing 1957 neorealist film Il grido, which Del Toro previously characterized to me as "like a James M Cain story without the crime," providing "feet-on-the-ground" weight to counterbalance Nightmare Alley's more fantastical flights of imagination.

Freaks, Tod Browning's divisive 1932 cult masterpiece, also casts a long shadow, both in its depiction of the carnival atmosphere (a haven for society's outcasts) and in the conflicts between devotion and avarice that Stan's intrusion evokes. Stan's interest and horror toward the "geek" – a horrible, chicken-biting sideshow attraction rolled out for the public by Willem Dafoe's garrulous Clem, and who we later learn has been trapped in this position by a brutal concoction of poverty, desperation, and addiction – is no accident. It's no surprise that the nerd strikes such a primordial chord with our antihero - a man who "never" drinks (Ritter teases the barely veiled importance of that word), but who appears to be constantly on the run from his own bestial nature.

Del Toro's depiction of favorite old B-movies provides enough of cinematic enjoyment, and you can sense his delight as he approaches the third act's dramatic apparitions. However, unlike his 2015 picture Crimson Peak, which was inspired by the statement "ghosts are real," the creatures of Nightmare Alley are created by humans – results of guilt and greed in a world that is spiritually barren. Del Toro isn't afraid to take this story all the way to its grim finish, putting his viewers in a particularly lonely place without resorting to cliched redeeming codas.

Nathan Johnson – a late-in-the-game replacement for Alexandre Desplat – delivers a luscious score (check out Lilith's Revenge on the soundtrack album). Tamara Deverell's superb production design and Dan Laustsen's imposing cinematography are complemented by a luscious score from Nathan Johnson – a late-in-the-day replacement for Alexandre Desplat – who really comes up with the goods.

Years ago, I compared Del Toro to Orson Welles, a filmmaker who intuitively understood cinema's hypnotic potential to fascinate, thrill, and deceive. That's a comparison I still stand with based on Nightmare Alley, which is blessed with more than a hint of evil.

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