Movie Review – Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley (2021)
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Having just watched the original Nightmare Alley a week ago, I was a little uncertain how I’d feel about this remake. Guillermo del Toro, like the Wachowskis, is a filmmaker I respect but don’t necessarily enjoy much of their work. It’s clear del Toro is presenting his vision without many studio-directed tweaks and cuts. I’ve begun to think of him as a more thoughtful Tim Burton, someone whose style is matched by the substance of his work. With Nightmare Alley, he comes to the table with a solid narrative to work with. He even manages to go with the novel’s original, bleaker conclusion than the 1947’s softened conclusion. However, the movie feels too sterile due to an over-reliance on modern digital cinematography.

Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) burns down his home in the Midwest and sets off down the road of Great Depression-era America. His journey leads him to cross paths with a traveling carnival and, during an escape attempt by the outfit’s geek, Stanton earns a place as a carny. He helps break down and set up the carnival and befriends many performers. Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn) become his closest associates at first. Stanton learns about their complex word system used to dupe patrons into believing Pete was clairvoyant. That puts ideas in the man’s head as he begins romancing Molly (Rooney Mara), another performer. Dark circumstances lead Stanton into a rushed marriage with Molly, and the two move to Chicago, where they begin selling their new act to the monied elite. This attracts the attention of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who sees a money-making angle of combining her detailed records of wealthy clients and Stanton’s ruse. However, the man was warned not to tempt people with promises of speaking with their dead loved ones and seems intent on breaking that rule.

You should know right away this is the first Guillermo del Toro film to NOT feature any supernatural elements. Stanton’s entire mind-reading ability is grounded in a complex con, and no real ghosts or monsters are ever seen on screen or alluded to. The great conflict at the center of the story is Stanton coming to believe his own lies and making promises to people on things he cannot possibly deliver. The most monstrous things we see are some of Clem’s formaldehyde jarred babies and the poor geek. In true del Toro fashion (pretty much the theme of all his work), humans are the worst monsters in the world.

We get a darkly complex story about the unnoticed rise of fascism and how humanity is composed of abused & downtrodden people who take advantage of each other. This story will not deliver a fairy tale ending and features characters you will have a deeply hard time liking. Such a shift by del Toro, a director who has spent his career delving into worlds of magic, is pretty jarring. The only figure who deserves an ounce of empathy in the picture is the poor geek, forced to bite the heads off chickens while living in an opium/alcohol-induced squalor. Even Molly is guilty of running a con; she just doesn’t want to go as far as Stanton is willing to reach. 

Two of the problems with the end product here is that it looks way too slick for as grimy as it should be, and the actors do not feel like they are acting in the same movie. One of the things that irk me about using digital cameras is that you often lose a sense of grit when it’s needed. There’s a haze over everything, and the angles are way too wide for the carnival, where a feel of the claustrophobic is required. Bradley Cooper plays his role as something darker and more intense, akin to a Scorsese movie. Then you have other actors putting on an affected 1940s movie character accent, and it doesn’t always gel. I definitely felt myself being pulled out of the movie due to these elements, and I wish the look had been a bit rougher and the performances tonally consistent. 

All that said, this is probably my favorite del Toro movie in a very long time. I haven’t been too wooed by his recent output, but this is so darkly beautiful. There are moments where the performances and tone suddenly click into place, and what we experience is harrowing. The backstory of Stanton is so awful and soul-wrenching. He eventually lines up the suspicious and guilt-ridden Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), who alludes to a history of horrific violence against women. Dr. Ritter is ultimately revealed as more than just a femme fatale, but a craven predator of human souls, reveling in watching people at their lowest. I would still recommend the 1947 version over this one, but you will get an outstanding experience with both films. Nightmare Alley will certainly divide fans of del Toro, those who enjoy his fantastic work will be met with something bleak here, but I welcome the maturity of this film and think it still evokes a sense of the otherworldly. 

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