Movies For Breakfast NIGHTMARE ALLEY Review
- Great performances
- Solid themes
- Great set design
- Emotional "punchy" ending
- Excessive runtime
- Can drag at points
- Dark tone may not be for everyone
Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett shine in Guillermo del Toro’s overlong morality tale of ambition vs greed.
In 1940s New York, down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle endears himself to a clairvoyant and her mentalist husband at a traveling carnival. Using newly acquired knowledge, Carlisle crafts a golden ticket to success by swindling the elite and wealthy. Hoping for a big score, he soon hatches a scheme to con a dangerous tycoon with help from a mysterious psychiatrist who might be his most formidable opponent yet.
The moment “Nightmare Alley” beings, we meet our protagonist Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, in one of his best performances) in an isolated house, dragging what looks like a body wrapped in a blanket. He lights a match and drops it on the floor, burning both the body and the house down. He then leaves and hitches a ride out of town. Before we eventually learn who (or what) was in the blanket, we are presented with no pretenses on what the tone of this film is: dark, gritty and penetrating. Based on the classic 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, “Nightmare Alley” follows the journey of Stan from a mysterious drifter to an ambitious “carny” to a greedy charlatan. Hopping off the bus, Stan comes across a traveling carnival, there he finds the horrifying display of a “geek” (a drunken and dazed carny that bites off the heads of live chickens for the audience’s entertainment). “Is he man or beast?”, Willem Dafoe’s character Clem asks the audience. Stan is moved by how the audience is both shaken and entranced by this horrific act. He wants to have this power, this power of taking an audience captive through enchanting lies.
As Stan takes a job with the carnies, he comes closer to learn the power of holding an audience captive and making them believe the lie. He shadows drunken, good-hearted carney leader Pete (David Strathairn, perfectly pitiful), where he learns how to be a fake psychic using coded language and verbal cues. Meanwhile, behind Pete’s back, Stan has an affair with Pete’s wife Zeena (Toni Collette, great), the Tarot card-reading Queen of the crew. There is a warning of course – Pete warns Stan of the power mentalism can have over others and its immeasurable consequences when put in the wrong hands. Stan is a man with ambition and he wants to take himself above and beyond the carnival, boasting off his mentalism “powers” for everyone to see – and pay for.
After a tragic accident, Stan along with his new wife, shy and innocent Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara, solid but not memorable) walk away from the carnival to the big city lights. With Molly as his trusted assistant, Stan later poses himself as a great psychic among Chicago’s elite, predicting objects in audience members’ hands as well as pretending to talk to deceased loved ones. At one of his shows, he comes across Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, brilliant), an enigmatic psychiatrist who is onto Stan and Molly’s con game. She nearly exposes the con before Stan beats her at her own game, embarrassing her by making a prediction of her estranged relationship with her mother. He later comes to Lilith’s office where they begin an interesting relationship – they have a passionate extramarital affair, strange doctor-patient sessions where we learn of Stan’s haunted past and a joined con where she agrees to give Stan personal details of her client’s lives. She gives this in exchange for a cut of the money Stan receives for visiting these people and showing off his psychic “gift”. It is here where Stan aims to make the biggest con of them all – Lilith’s client Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins, ruthless), a dangerous, rich man who wants closure and wants to connect with his deceased lover.
“Nightmare Alley” works well as a morality tale with amoral characters at its center. There is no one good in this film, just people looking to scheme the next “sucker” with unfortunate enough luck to end up in their grasp. Bradley Cooper gives a great nuanced performance of Stan Carlisle, drifting between his character’s natural Texas drawl to his faux haute accent when he is trying to manipulate the big wigs of Chicago’s elite. He shows quiet desperation in his eyes as a man who is confuses the act of outrunning his demons to chasing flawed ambition. There is also terrific chemistry between Cooper and Blanchett as they play out their scenes of careful tête-à-tête in which one is always trying to stay a step ahead of the other. Ron Pearlman and Willem Dafoe make for some entertaining supporting turns as strongman Bruno and “geek” announcer Clem but they fall by the wayside as the film moves along, forgetting them sans one scene where Pearlman returns. However, the best supporting performance of al unquestionably goes to Richard Jenkins who steals the show as the dangerous Grindle. He skillfully shows his character’s ruthless hand in scenes with Stan trying his best to keep his charlatan game up without letting his secret get out.
The film plays its morality game out well enough, culminating in a thrilling and violent, if not entirely surprising conclusion. Also sticking the landing with a painfully ironic ending of destined doom. The 1940’s set design is gorgeous, adding to Del Toro’s platter of well-designed period pieces (see: The Shape of Water and Crimson Peak). If only the film wasn’t so dang long – the film’s 150-minute runtime drags the plot rather than delve deep into it. There are many throwaway filler scenes throughout the film that stagnate the film’s flow rather than enhance it.
“Nightmare Alley” is a great horror film of human monsters instead of supernatural ones. There are many interesting themes of greed, ambition and human folly that are presented to the audience but are not really explored, even in the film’s excessive runtime. Outside of its runtime, the film carries great performances, great production design and a great story. Even though its dark nature may not be for everyone, there is beautifully dark craft in Del Toro’s work and it exemplifies the fact that the man has not lost a step in grim entertainment.