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edge staff writer


‘Nightmare Alley’ a stylish sideshow noir

December 20, 2021
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Few filmmakers are as comfortable astride the line between the beautiful and the grotesque as Guillermo del Toro. The echoes of this affinity reverberate through much of his filmography, whether we’re talking about horror or sci-fi or fantasy – he finds ways to elevate genre filmmaking more cleanly and compellingly than any of his peers.

His latest offering is “Nightmare Alley,” a film whose script he also co-adapted alongside Kim Morgan from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name. While it doesn’t venture as far into the fantastical as much of his earlier work – the genre this time around is noir more than anything – he’s still able to find ways to explore that light/dark balance, albeit largely in an internal manner rather than externally.

Of course, it is also marked by del Toro’s typically lush visual stylings, an idiosyncratic and mesmerizing aesthetic that is evocative and haunting. While it does get a little mushy in terms of narrative, it also features an incredibly talented cast (including a few del Toro favorites). It is stark and bleak and beautiful, a thriller that revels in the moral and ethical shadows that it casts.

In the waning days of the 1930s, we meet Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). He’s a drifter, a man to whom we’re introduced as he lays waste to the only place he ever had to go. Circumstances drop him in the midst of a traveling carnival; he’s got no other prospects, so it’s a carny life for him. Clem (Willem Dafoe) brings him on first out of pity, but soon decides that Stan can stick around. Stan meets some of the other carnival folk, like strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) and diminutive barker The Major (Mark Povinelli), and develops an infatuation with a young woman named Molly (Rooney Mara).

Stan’s path is set when he starts working with Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), who along with her alcoholic husband Pete (David Straithairn) has been running a mentalist act involving cold reading and a unique and ingenious verbal code. Stan shows a knack for the work – a knack that will lead him to strike out on his own, albeit due to rather tragic circumstances.

His act grows in prominence, leading him to cross paths with a skeptical psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Dr. Ritter recognizes Stan’s grift for what it is while also being somewhat fascinated by his abilities and the internal motivations behind them. Her interest leads to Stan being pulled into the orbits of some very wealthy, powerful people – the sorts of people from whom Stan will suffer real consequences should he push the game too far.

There’s more here – a lot more – but “Nightmare Alley” is a movie that will reward those who allow the story itself to buoy them along. Better to not know the details – and with this being a del Toro joint, you KNOW there are going to be a whole lot of details. Whether we’re wandering through a shabby sideshow or rubbing elbows with societal elites, there’s a ton going on in every single frame. You’ll have more fun if you’re surprised (even if some of the developments ultimately won’t feel all that surprising after all).

Del Toro’s affection for the outsiders, for the people on society’s fringes, is treated with more straightforward realism than usual here. The supernatural/paranormal factors here are man-made, products of a desire to separate the masses from their money. But even then, there’s an odd inversion of morality at play, typified by the carnival’s House of Horrors that is structured entirely around the Seven Deadly Sins, with all that that entails.

It’s also an examination of ambition and how that can color one’s actions – particularly if one has already demonstrated a willingness to travel a darker path to get what one wants. In Stan, del Toro gives us a man of moral flexibility, someone whose own personal struggles have soured his soul, even as he maintains a very real surface-level charm. It is only in moments where his own sins are hinted at that we see cracks in the charismatic veneer.

Again – del Toro is unafraid to cast long shadows in his work. Those shadows are rendered all the deeper by the more realistic aspects of this film. This is not a tale of mythical beasts and fantastical creatures. It is an all-too-human story, a story of how seemingly small steps can lead much farther down into the depths than one might ever have imagined.

All of this is brought forward by the singularly odd beauty of the production designs. Ramshackle carnival grounds and opulently massive mansions, luxury hotel rooms and mattresses on floors – all of it perfectly curated to illustrate the societal divide and just how Herculean an effort it will ultimately take to cross it.

Cooper is pretty great here, subverting his usual winking charisma into something that feels dirtier and more menacing. He keeps his charm from reaching his eyes – it’s subtle, but when you see it, you feel it. Mara does well here, though she’s perhaps a bit more damsel-in-distress than necessary. Still, she’s got presence of her own. Collette and Straithairn are a dynamic duo, each radiating a resigned sadness that slots wonderfully into the world of this rundown carnival. Dafoe (who has had one hell of a weekend) is great as well, bringing forth a captivating amorality. Perlman offers his usual greatness, as does fellow del Toro veteran Richard Jenkins.

But we have to talk about Blanchette. In her hands, Lilith is an almost hypnotic presence on screen. Her performance is so straightforwardly chilling, she might as well have been carved from a block of ice. It is magnificent work; from her initial appearance, she serves as the fulcrum of the movie, the point upon which everything else is balanced. Also worth noting: the chemistry between her and Cooper is palpable.

“Nightmare Alley” has its issues – it lags and drags in spots – but those relatively minor flaws are more than compensated for by the stunning visual acuity and spot-on performances. Here, del Toro demonstrates his mastery of yet another genre, inserting his own sensibility into a noir thriller and creating something that, while imperfect, is undeniably memorable.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 20 December 2021 10:56

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