CINEMA REVIEW: NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan
Based on: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Produced by: J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro, Bradley Cooper
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, etc.
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Guillermo Del Toro could probably have had his pick of film stories to choose from after the monumental box office and critical success of the majestic alternative love story, The Shape of Water (2017). But rather than build on the message of love and hope in that creature feature he has chosen to adapt the noir novel, Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. In the process Del Toro has also remade the classic 1947 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power.
Essentially a $60 million dollar B-movie, the film is one of the most opulently dark and beautifully designed films I have witnessed in some time. Light, shadow, wood, gold, blood, fire, sweat, skin, snow, and night all collide and collude in a stunningly presented palette from Del Toro and lead production designer, Tamara Deverell. This film is a moving painting with inspiration from geniuses such as Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Edward Hopper. While the look of the Nightmare Alley (2021) and cast are a constant wonder, I had a nagging thought while watching the film which made me question who the audience was for this film. Also, there were many story elements which did not gel for me.
Nightmare Alley (2021) opens with fire and death. Drifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) then finds himself drawn to the carnival arena. It is full of shadowy characters, oddballs and tricksters, portrayed with dirty glamour by the likes of Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn, plus the more innocent, Rooney Mara. Stanton fits right in and is soon making a name for himself as a mentalist, fooling audiences with carefully rehearsed cues and memory tricks. The first half of the film is its narrative strength. Only after Stanton’s story leaves the carnival his journey twists into something more sinister, but less satisfying.
I enjoyed Del Toro’s stunning visual magic employed in Nightmare Alley (2021). However, while Bradley Cooper has terrific star quality I did not care for his anti-heroic Stanton Carlisle. Cate Blanchett is also alluring as the latter second act enchanter, but ultimately the film lacks real depth. Themes relating to masculinity in crisis, war, psychoanalysis, crime, grief, the afterlife and what it means to be a freak or outsider are there, but only skimmed. I mean the plot has some decent twists, but I did not entirely commit to the downward trajectory of Carlisle’s tale. Overall, as a morality tale Nightmare Alley (2021) is not as frighteningly tragic as it could have been. Carlisle gets what he deserves, and I felt little pity or horror for his end. Unlike another classic noir from some years back, Angel Heart (1987).