Nightmare Alley 2021 Movie Review
Director Guillermo del Toro’s films have long explored the fine line between monsters and men, though the overlapping part of that particular Venn diagram is where his psychological thriller “Nightmare Alley” lives in seedy style.
A reimagining of author William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 noir classic, “Alley” (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday) is full of swindlers, grifters and charlatans finding marks and making poor life decisions in a period setting. Bradley Cooper stars as a morally questionable protagonist in this cautionary tale and Cate Blanchett seems to be having a devilish time, even if the characters on the whole don’t have as much appeal as del Toro’s overall gothic-tinged circus of weirdness.
Looking to leave the ashes of his past behind, Stanton Carlisle (Cooper) hops on a train bound for nowhere in the 1930s and ends up at a traveling carnival. Like other patrons, Stan is eerily interested in the “geek” show – where what’s left of a man does beastly deeds (like biting the heads off live animals) for rewards to appease his addiction – and gets a job doing whatever tasks wild-eyed barker Clem (Willem Dafoe) needs done.
Stan falls under the wing of psychic “seer” Zeena (Toni Collette), helping out when her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) is too drunk to work. The new guy discovers these two had quite a successful act using a code that Pete has written down in a book, and Stan begins to show a darker, more manipulative side when he sees potential for a new con job. He charms Molly (Rooney Mara), a young woman who headlines an electrifying sideshow, and the two lovebirds leave the carnies behind for fame and fortune.
Flash forward to 1941 and Stan is now headlining a mentalist act (with Molly as his assistant) in Buffalo. Entertaining members of the high class, Stan meets enigmatic psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter: She also is no stranger to working angles on people (plus seems to find him an entrancing study), and Stan enlists her help in finding the right clientele to bilk their checkbooks. Rich industrial magnate Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) is one such dude, a skeptic who hires Stan to communicate with a lost loved one, and even though Stan has been warned multiple times to not do a “spook show,” his ego and raw ambition lead him down a bad path.
Blanchett is just fun to watch in a role that tweaks the femme-fatale mold – her whole look and vibe screams “Danger ahead.” And Cooper does a lot with his meaty character arc as a man unable to escape his poisonous self: The actor, who is onscreen for the vast majority of the movie’s two-and-a-half hours, wrings everything he can out of Stan, from his fiery introduction to a superb and expertly played final scene.
Even though there are a bunch of interesting personalities (like Ron Perlman’s strongman Bruno), “Nightmare Alley” lacks the human connections that not only made del Toro’s last effort, best picture winner “The Shape of Water,” so entrancing but also populate the 1947 adaptation of Gresham’s book. (That film starring Tyrone Power is a stronger, tighter story overall – and one that’s a lot less bleak than del Toro’s.)
If you want visual flair, however, the new “Alley” has plenty. The carnival setting that opens the film is where del Toro gets to put all his trademark weirdness, from the strange specimens Clem has hanging around to the old-time attractions that lend a sense of danger and adventure. (Stan carefully navigating a funhouse might as well be a tease of what a del Toro Indiana Jones picture would feel like.)
That world is contrasted with the high-end art deco scene where Stan later works his “all-seeing” magic, a landscape that might look a lot nicer but has the same sinister undercurrent where men (and women) can be real monsters. And through del Toro’s lens, dark hearts look so good.