Thursday, December 16, 2021

Nightmare Alley - Review


Welcome to the newest Guillermo del Toro affair, where the screen is dark, but the characters are darker. The well known director has made his name in depicting worlds that drip with gothic, nightmarish style, populated by monsters of mythic and realistic origin. With Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro takes on a 1940s noir of the same name, a film that’s devilishly dark for its time but can’t quite go to the depths that del Toro can. And the results of this remake are interesting, at the very least.

Down on his luck Stanton Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper, finds himself at the doorstep of a traveling carnival. He quickly makes his way in the world of the wonderful and strange, befriending a few of the performers along the way before gaining a golden ticket to success in the form of a well refined mentalist trick. Through tricks and showmanship, and his loyal wife Molly, played by Rooney Mara, at his side, Stanton slowly climbs to the top of 1940s New York society, and does everything he can to stay there. 

Before anything else can be said, the design and craft behind this film must be admired and praised from top to bottom. Most of Guillermo del Toro’s films feature gorgeous production design, that’s not new, but Nightmare Alley is almost bursting at the seems with the signature gothic feel of his filmography running rampant in the already weird setting of a carnival. It’s a tremendous visual experience, and when combined with the solid score from Nathan Johnson, the film really is a textbook example of style doing a lot of heavy lifting. 

The visuals and music have to do so much of the work because the story just can’t quite measure up. It does change things from the original, benefiting from more leeway being given in the 21st century of course, but it somehow becomes more meandering and slow in the process. None of which is inherently bad, but when moments become boring in a 1940s noir with the mystery and eery premise attached to it, you start to have a problem. 

Thankfully, a handful of performances also lift the film beyond its lackluster screenplay. Bradley Cooper is good throughout most of the runtime, but his final scene shifts his performance into the territory of great. It’s an off-putting and uncomfortable final moment, but Cooper sells it incredibly well. However, the real highlight is Cate Blanchett, which shouldn’t exactly come as a shock. Her scenes, after she’s introduced about halfway through, are the best moments of the film, and her presence just changes the whole dynamic of the story from the jump. 

In the end, Nightmare Alley is far from Guillermo del Toro’s best work, but there’s enough of what audiences have come to expect from his films here to say it’s worthwhile.  The script is the weakest piece of the puzzle, but the visual flare and members of the stacked cast elevate the material into something that’s pretty solid. If you’re a sucker for the big, ghastly worlds of del Toro, you’ll most likely love what this film has to offer. And if not, chances are still pretty solid you’ll find something to enjoy amongst the bizarre and strange. 

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