Tuesday 29 March 2022

Movie Review: Nightmare Alley (2021)

A drama about greed, Nightmare Alley is gorgeously photographed but poorly paced and emotionally sparse.

In 1939, Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) burns the body of his dead father and drifts across the land. He finds work with the traveling carnival owned by Bruno (Ron Perlman), where the main attraction is a geek show. Stan meets Zeena (Toni Collette), who runs a clairvoyant act with the perpetually drunk Pete (David Strathairn). Stan eyes the communication codes used by Zeena and Pete as his ticket to riches, and convinces performer Molly (Rooney Mara) to partner with him in both romance and business. He ignores warnings about the dangers of dabbling in the afterlife.

Stan and Molly find success with an upscale clairvoyant act in big city hotels, attracting the attention of conniving psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She agrees to an uneasy scheme, providing Stan confidential information about her wealthy clients Judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill) and the tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), while he dupes them with fake seances. Molly disapproves of Stan's greed and intrusion into the spirit world, but he pushes ahead.

Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, Nightmare Alley is an adaptation of the William Lindsay Gresham book, previously brought to the screen in a 1947 Tyrone Power classic. Here del Toro switches to colour, and with the help of Dan Laustsen's stellar cinematography delivers stunning beauty. Every scene is a masterpiece of picturesque framing and angular tension highlighting a noir psyche, although the glossy visuals threaten to slip into postcard artificiality.

Beyond the rich artistry, Nightmare Alley is bloated and unbalanced. The relatively simple rise-and-fall story of one man stretches to a tiresome 150 minutes, and often focuses on the wrong elements. It's a full one hour into the movie before Stan and Molly leave the carnival, and in that entire time, Zeena and Pete's show is never once presented as an effective act inspiring Stan's ambition. Once Stan and Molly achieve success, they are denied the thrill of commanding a room and instead are immediately reduced to a bickering couple. Without a reservoir of trust and affection, the rupture of their relationship loses impact.

del Toro's favorite theme of monsters among us gets a good workout. The chicken-biting geek is a monstrous representation of comeuppance as a freak show with audiences marveling at how low a man can fall. Meanwhile, both Stan and Dr. Lilith struggle with insatiable urges for emotional domination and avarice, their monsters within engaged in dark battles of possession.

Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith adds a jolt of intrigue once she enters the movie about halfway through, finally presenting Stan with a soul more twisted than his own. But Lilith plays in a higher league: she is sophisticated, successful, and resourceful, while he is a scrappy small-timer with misguided delusions of grandeur. His initial victory in guessing the contents of her purse was never going to be anything more than beginner's luck, and she predictably designs his downfall with methodical relish.

In the lead role Bradley Cooper is adequate and charismatic without quite finding the necessary level of behind-the-eyes intensity. Rooney Mara is underutilized, and the rest of the cast includes small roles for Willem Dafoe and Mary Steenburgen.

Nightmare Alley is visually vibrant, but rarely visceral.

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