Director-Guillermo del Toro
Starring-Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara
Scott’s Review #1,229
Reviewed February 13, 2022
I have not seen the original Nightmare Alley made in 1947 so can make no comparisons to how the film noir remake in 2021 compares but I am a fan of respected filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. His knack for creating such dark treats containing fantastical elements like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017) have similar tones.
Set back in the 1930s and the 1940s when the United States of America suffered from the Depression and subsequently World War II, a midwestern carnival and then wintry Buffalo, New York are the chosen settings for his latest film.
Nightmare Alley feels like two different films and I prefer the first half by a small margin. del Toro is a major filmmaker and while he creates an experience that is gorgeously shot and simmering with effective elements it’s not one of his best films and certainly not on par with the above-mentioned gems.
The story stretches believability at times and feels like the film noir elements from the original might have been included just for the sake of making it fit a defined category. The twist at the end shocks and disturbs which cements the del Toro flavor.
To summarize, the look of the film is exceptional and the story is pretty good and the two halves, one in the midwest and the other in Buffalo, feel disjointed.
When handsome and very charismatic but down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) meets the clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her aging mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn) at a traveling carnival, he creates a powerful act utilizing his ability to manipulate townfolks.
He has fled from a dark past involving his father and fire but we don’t know the exact details.
Moving on to Buffalo, he enshrouds the wealthy elite of 1940s New York high society. With the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) by his side, Stanton plots to con a rich yet vulnerable tycoon (Richard Jenkins) with the aid of a mysterious and pouty psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who might have tricks up her sleeve.
Since I adore Blanchett I was eagerly awaiting her entrance which unfortunately doesn’t come until midway through the film. Nonetheless, she makes quite an impression as she smokes and drinks in stylish glamour befitting gorgeous women of the time. Moreover, her character of Lilith Ritter is cold and calculating as the audience knows she is toying with Stanton, we just don’t know how or why.
While not quite a romantic triangle, Cooper has good chemistry with Mara but tremendous chemistry with Blanchett. Both actresses reunite from their turn together in Carol (2015) but have very little screen time together.
Each of the three delivers a mighty performance with Cooper and Blanchett simply mesmerizing.
One can even forget the plot entirely and simply look at the film. It’s that good and polished. From the dusty and depressing midwestern ordinary towns to the architecturally fabulous Buffalo, del Toro and team construct a lavish production design. Each costume and set piece is perfectly staged.
I was more attuned to the strange and creepy carnival characters like the ‘geek’ and Cooper and Blanchett making on-screen magnificence than to care as much as I should have about the storyline plotholes or inconsistencies.
The unsatisfying reveal about the relationship between Stanton and his father or the backstory of the rich tycoon abusing young girls only gave me mild interest. The story as a whole becomes too complex and uncompelling for me to really care for a while.
The sweet spot of Nightmare Alley (2021) is the grand production design and the flawless acting. Besides an effective ‘oh, shit!’ moment at the conclusion which confirms Cooper as a great actor, the story mainly meanders.
It’s a very good effort but not one of del Toro’s best.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design