Nightmare Alley

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

Nightmare Alley
dir Guillermo del Toro
scr Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan
prd J Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro, Bradley Cooper
with Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr, Tim Blake Nelson
release US 17.Dec.21,
UK 21.Jan.22
21/US Searchlight 2h30

collette mara dafoe

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blanchett and cooper
With a bleak noir sensibility, Guillermo del Toro adapts on a 1946 novel into a heavily stylised mystery thriller. The terrific actors seize their characters' complexities, finding angles that are curiously engaging. But the film has a cold, brittle tone that sits intriguingly at odds with the lavish and deeply shadowed settings. It also becomes a remarkably intense tale about the dangers of losing your sense of self.
In 1938, Stan (Cooper) joins a circus, working for Clem (Dafoe)'s freak show and the psychic Zeena (Collette), whose veteran partner Pete (Strathairn) teaches Stan the secrets of mentalism. A quick learner, Stan recreates Pete's act and runs away with electric-shock girl Molly (Mara). Years later, they meet shark-like psychiatrist Lilith (Blanchett), and she helps Stan create an elaborate con to make a fortune from the wealthy Ezra (Jenkins), who longs to reconnect with his late wife. Sam knows that Lilith isn't doing this for free, but hasn't a clue what the cost will be.
Designed to within an inch of its life, there's nothing gritty or realistic here, but del Toro is terrific at tapping into character detail in fantastical situations. So while much of the film feels almost dreamlike due to its too-elaborate sets and effects, the intrigue is riveting. Deeper personal feelings have a strong resonance, including the full range from lust and wonder to anguish and loathing. And del Toro makes sure that, even though everything looks heightened, underlying emotional journeys feel earthy and honest.

At the centre, Cooper channels his charming magnetism to make Stan both sympathetic and terrifying. We know he's a killer, but his arrogance makes him vulnerable, especially in the presence of astonishing ice queen Lilith, whom Blanchett plays purringly as an unapologetic predator. Mara's role is somewhat thankless, which is perhaps appropriate for a character who feels unseen. And there are wonderfully jagged textures added by Collette, Jenkins, Strathairn and an especially pungent Dafoe.

There are issues with the film's point of view, as some scenes are oddly off-balance, including wrenching moments that don't dovetail with Stan's narrative. While visually stunning, flashbacks to his past feel overused and obvious. And the long running time sags in the middle before churning into an appropriately nasty, incendiary final act. This section of the film gives Cooper a chance to dig deeply into Stan's soul. So even if his trajectory is somewhat predictable, it's played with a moving, desolate intensity.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 7.Dec.21

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall