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Nightmare Alley (2021)

Director – Guillermo del Toro – 2021 – US – Cert. 15 – 150m

****

A former carny gets deep into trouble using mind-reading trickery on a wealthy mark – out in cinemas on Friday, January 21st. Also available on Digital Wednesday, March 16th and on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, March 21st

After burning a body in an isolated farmhouse, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) gets work with travelling carnival showman Clem (Willem Dafoe) via midget The Major (Mark Povinelli) and strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman). He soon ingratiates himself with mind reader Zeena (Toni Collette) who lets him into some of the secrets of her trade, but romantically he’s more interested in Molly (Rooney Mara) with whom, despite opposition from her unofficial guardian Bruno, he runs away intent on working a lucrative act on a wealthier audience to make larger amounts of money.

One night, during a residency at a hotel, Stanton and Molly’s show is interrupted by a woman (Cate Blanchett) trying to expose him as a fraud. Successfully navigating her heckling, he convinces Judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill) that he is in contact with the Judge’s dead son. Going against Molly’s advice not to do “spook shows”, and offering to cut in the woman, psychoanalyst Dr. Lilith Ritter, for 50%, he agrees to private sessions with the Judge who puts him onto his wealthy friend Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).

Dr. Lilith warns Stanton off Grindle as too dangerous; on meeting, the latter, who never goes anywhere without his loyal bodyguard Anderson (Holt McCallany), wires him up to a polygraph. As Stanton’s scam plays out over a series of meetings, and he seems to be in over his head, his relationship with Molly and possibly his very life is threatened.

Burning farmhouse prologue aside, this hits the world of the carnival fairly early on – a peculiarly American institution, with its emphasis on freaks of nature, unearthly phenomena and mind reading. All of these are shows, illusions conjured to entertain the masses, yet presented as if they are real. There are preserved specimens in jars, and Clem exhibits a pitiful creature somewhere between beast and man. Molly appears as a woman whose body visibly and spectacularly conducts electricity, Zeena uses clever trickery to convince punters their minds are being read. If anything looks like becoming to complicated, Zeena will take a punter aside and explain it’s a show, not reality.

Once Stanton transplants Zeena’s mind tricks and Molly as assistant into the wealthier milieu of posh hotel dining rooms, the lure of money rolling in proves too much for him and he prefers making more and more rather than revealing that it’s merely an illusion. As clients come in further up the social tree, this proves to be Stanton’s undoing. Grindle is not a man to be trifled with and doesn’t deal with the illusions presented to him according to Stanton’s plan.

Awash with incredible production design that almost seems too showy for the tale being told, director del Toro’s adaptation feels overlong. If noir was a contemporary genre at the time the original 1947 film was made, to make a new version set in the late 1930s / early 1940s gives it a distinct period feel. Scenes towards the end with Stanton fleeing between stationary trains in a railway yard conjure the title, but the narrative takes far too long getting there, detouring into sequential character studies of its three women. Sadly, none of them are as affecting as prior del Toro heroines Ofelia (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) or Elisa (The Shape Of Water, 2017).

Most of the carnival characters disappear fairly early on, including Zeena’s liability of an alcoholic partner, Pete (David Strathairn). The flow sticks with the self-obsessed Stanton, a user of others for his own ends for whom it’s hard to feel any real sympathy. Sadly, we never really get to know Molly as he takes along for the ride. Similarly, Dr. Lilith feels like a cipher, a professional femme fatale potentially capable of beating Stanton at his own game.

On the plus side, there are some striking character turns from a couple of comparatively minor cast members – the often mild-mannered Richard Jenkins is a revelation as a ruthless, rich client, while McCallany proves memorable as the man’s loyal bodyguard. Elsewhere, though, many of the roles border on caricature, suggesting that a contemporary period remake of a book that inspired the less bloated, more concise 1947 film noir might not be the best use of del Toro’s talent.

Nightmare Alley is nominated for Best Picture in the 2021/22 (94th) Oscars as well as Best Cinematography, Best Production Design.

Nightmare Alley is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, January 21st. Also available on Digital Wednesday, March 16th and on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, March 21st.

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