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 Alleyby 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).
(Contains mild spoilers – nothing you may not already know.)
I write reviews for a number of reasons. Firstly, I love cinema and TV and music and culture in general and enjoy writing and thinking about the things I have seen and why I liked or disliked them. Secondly, as a writer myself I enjoy considering aspects from a screenwriting perspective and analyses what did or didn’t work for me. Thirdly, I guess from a narcissistic or egotistical perspective there’s a part of you that wants the attention or simply just confirmation that one’s opinions are being read or listened too. Ultimately, it’s a pastime and a bit of fun.
Every now and then a film comes along which is hard to place and it makes you think and you actually have to apply yourself. You can fall into certain traps of structure or at worst formula when writing reviews. But with David Lowery’s majestic A Ghost Story (2017) he has delivered such an original work of cinema art it is difficult to follow one’s established reviewing rules.
For starters it is difficult to even give you a brief synopsis of the film because it is so simple in its concept that the title itself sums up what the narrative is. It literally is a Ghost’s story! However, after establishing the accessible drama of the loss of a loved one, the characters move into a whole new level of complexity in regard to the supernatural, temporal, philosophical and metaphysical.
The main cast are Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara and they brilliantly under-play a loving couple who share a property in a nameless place. Their characters are also seemingly nameless (referred to as ‘C’ and ‘M’ in the credits) and their normal lives are then torn apart when he dies in a car accident. In a beautifully haunting scene at the morgue ‘C’ “awakes” as a GHOST IN A SHEET! Yes, his Ghost is shrouded in a sheet with two eye-holes cut out. My feeling about this initially was how would the director make it work without possible derision? But, due to his sheer confidence in the idea and choice of shots, music and pace we are quickly enveloped by ‘C’s pale figure and his drama.
From then on we see everything from the Ghost’s perspective and it truly is heart-breaking. I mean it takes guts for the filmmaker to cover his leading actor for the rest of the film but it genuinely pays off. My feeling about the sheet idea was that in death we lose our identity via our body, yet our soul lives on in the space where we existed. Our Ghost here is a genuine lost soul unable to move on and he literally haunts his home in a desire to stay with the one he loves. I also enjoyed the spirituality of the piece without once there being a reference to religion. It’s not about dogmatic belief systems but the purity of life and love.
David Lowery has created one of the most original stories of the year and his handling of composition; editing and temporal structure is a masterclass in pure cinema. This film is hypnotic, tragic and one of the best of the year. It echoes the work of Bergman, Kubrik and Tarkovsky. I for one do like my conventional genre films with well-formed characters and clear plot-lines, but this film transcends cinema conventions and delivers one of the most poignant and melancholic experiences of the year. Plus, the score by Daniel Hart really augments the minimalist approach and often dialogue-free sequences. Overall, this is a meditative joy which is both unconventional yet in its unpolluted filmic poetry had me transfixed throughout.
To accompany the list of my most entertaining films I saw last year I’ve also compiled a few nominations for best this and that!
**** CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
BEST PHOTOGRAPHY – ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013) What it lacks in plot it makes up with one incredibly designed scene after another. And the violence is something else!
MOST HEART-WRENCHING SCENE – FLIGHT (2012) The film opens with a tremendously staged plane crash. However, the scene where Denzil battles a miniature bottle of booze has almost more riding on it dramatically. Tension, suspense and the agony of human frailty are all in this scene. The moment we’ve all been through where we are battling our demons and trying to do the right thing is centre to the scene. Will Denzil pick up the bottle? Will the angels or demons win out?
BEST CINEMATIC EXPERIENCE – GRAVITY (2013) All I can say is wow! This film was just wow! Some have criticized a lack of plot and characterisation but this is a movie which just takes your breath away. As I said, wow!
MOST BEAUTIFUL SCENE – RUST & BONE (2012) Marion Cotillard’s Killer Whale trainer reconnects with nature in this serene moment from a compelling drama. It’s a beautiful moment for the audience visually and also the character.
BEST ENDING/BEST CAST – CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) Whether the film is truth or fiction Tom Hanks’ acting throughout is superb. He’s none better than in the final scene when he reaches the medical bay. The way he releases the tension it so memorable. His co-star Barkhad Abdi has to get an Oscar nod too for Best Supporting Actor.
BEST MOVIE PLOT + TWIST – SIDE EFFECTS (2013) This film genuinely pulls the rug from underneath your feet! Fantastic storytelling! It starts seemingly as a critique of the pharmaceutical industry but then becomes a nasty, lurid Hitchcockian thriller with great performances from Jude Law and Rooney Mara.
BEST BRITISH FILM – BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012) Both a tribute to Italian Horror and the Foley Artist this is a disturbing arthouse horror which generates its’ scares through the sound. You think you’ve seen something scary but haven’t. Incredibly constructed and recommended for cinephiles all over.
BEST GAG – ANCHORMAN 2
I couldn’t find a clip but Brian Fantana’s gag was the funniest joke I heard at the cinema all year. The News Team’s attempt at 24 hour News has seemingly failed and in the scene Brian is asked what he will do next. He replies:
“I’m going to cruise round with my friends O.J. Simpson, Robert Burke and Phil Spector. We call ourselves the LadyKillers!”
BEST MOVIE SOUNDTRACK – WORLD’S END (2013) Pegg and Wright’s highly entertaining apocalyptic comedy is touching, action-packed and amusing. It gets a bit silly by the end but there’s a great energy and some funny dialogue and physical humour throughout. The soundtrack is a cracker featuring the Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Sisters Of Mercy and the Soup Dragons to name just a few. It’s like the perfect Indie Disco in the cinema!
BIGGEST MOVIE LET-DOWN – MAN OF STEEL (2013) A great cast and stupendous effects could not save the broken-backed Superman story crash and burn. Henry Cavill was a terrific Kal-El but the filmmakers ruined the whole piece by cramming too much into a few hours of screen time and not allowing the cast, characters or story to breathe. It was sensory overload and bogged down with too much exposition. The Batman v. Superman film under Zack Snyder’s direction could possibly signal the end of the comic book boom of recent time. The bubble is going to burst at some point I tells ya!
FILM MOST F*CKED BY THE CRITICS – LONE RANGER (2013)
This mega-budget update of the old radio/TV show from yesteryear was nowhere near as bad as the critics made out. It followed the ‘PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN’ template but perhaps the problem was Johnny Depp playing deadpan rather than drunken Pirate. The critics didn’t go for it and nor did the audience as it kind of bombed as well. However, Gore Verbinski directed with verve and energy and the final set-piece on the train is one of the best action sequences of the year.
BEST SCREEN CHEMISTRY – SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)
I was tempted to say BREAKING BAD but Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence were electric in David O. Russell’s bipolar romantic drama/comedy. The whole cast were great in fact including Robert DeNiro as the bookie father and Chris Tucker as a friend of Cooper’s character. But Cooper and Lawrence made the film their own with their portrayals of damaged but very human couple finding each other in a crazy world.
BEST MOVIE WITHOUT A SCRIPT – WORLD WAR Z – (2013) Brad Pitt’s travelogue around the World avoiding a zombie plague was actually really entertaining in places with some great set-pieces but it had a lousy script with essentially no story or plot. They genuinely feel like they’re making it up as they’re going along. Having said all that I really enjoyed it at the cinema even though Pitt was miscast and this really needed a decent action-hero like Schwarzenegger in his prime to really boost the movie.
BEST FEMALE ARCHER – THE HOBBIT 2 (2013)
I love an action women especially one with a bow and arrow and this award came down to a toss-up between Jennifer Lawrence in HUNGER GAMES 2 and Evangeline Lilly. In the end I came down on the side of Tauriel the Elf in Peter Jackson’s behemoth production of THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Jumping, spinning and diving about firing and killing Orcs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What a woman!
BEST DOUBLE ACT – RUSH (2013) RUSH was indeed a big rush cinematically but the casting of Daniel Bruehl as cool Nikki Lauda and Chris Hemsworth as fiery James Hunt motored this movie along off the track too. The characterizations dealt solely in binary but provided much entertainment along the way. Of course Ron Howard and his creative team served up some wicked action as well.
BAD-ASSEST REVENGE – DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)
Tarantino’s fantasy Western saw Jamie’s Foxx’s eponymous hero rise from that of a chained-in-pain slave to a kill-crazy-bounty-hunting-dancing-horse-riding-bad-ass-mutha-fuKKKa! Everything about this film was a hoot and so entertaining! It also has arguably the funniest scene I saw all year too with the racists on horseback including Jonah Hill arguing about the quality of their hoods.
BEST VILLAIN – DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) Calvin Candie was a horrific character and played with genuine charm by the masterful Leonardo DiCaprio. HE should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in my view as Christophe Waltz already had one! Candie’s character was not only a vain, insane, murdering slave trader but there was a sense of an incestuous relationship with his sister. He got his just desserts in the end but alas DiCaprio didn’t from the Academy.
BEST FRANCHISE SEQUEL – IRON MAN 3 (2013) 2013 was big on Franchise equals, sequels and prequels including FAST & FURIOUS 6, THOR 2, HUNGER GAMES 2, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and THE HOBBIT 2. They were all really really entertaining but my favourite was the ever dependable Robert Downey Jnr as Tony Stark. It had some cracking one-liners and decent villains plus a lovely little twist which had all the fanboys up in arms because of Director Shane Black’s irreverent treatment of the Mandarin character.