Sunday, January 2, 2022

Nightmare Alley

Movie Name:
Nightmare Alley
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Willem Dafoe, Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Mark Povinelli, Peter MacNeill, Holt McCallany, Paul Anderson, Jim Beaver, David Hewlett, Lara Jean Chorostecki
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
After finally winning a series of well deserved awards with "The Shape of Water", director Guillermo del Toro is back, this time around with the adaptation of a book by William Lindsay Gresham, which had previously been adapted to the big screen by Edmund Goulding, with a central performance by Tyrone Power (in 1947). The film follows the story of Stanton Carlisle, whom we first encounter leaving a house which he has set on fire. He moves on and quickly finds himself working for a carnival as a carny. He soon makes friends with the clairvoyant Madam Zeena, who typically works with her alcoholic (and much older) husband Pete. As Stan starts to understand their show, he also becomes acquainted with Pete's more elaborate trick, one that he no longer performs, one which obeys a series of coded messages that have a guidebook with specific instructions, one that essentially plays off as if the performer is indeed a clairvoyant or a person with special skills. Stan is also very much interested in Molly, and comes up with a few clever ideas to enhance her show. When Pete dies, Stan decides to propose to Molly moving away and start an act with what he has learnt from Pete (and his book of instructions). They move to NY, where Stan and Molly finally have a very successful act. In one of their sessions, they're challenged by a woman by the name of Lilith Ritter, a psychologist, who suspects their act is a con. As Stan manages to turn the tables on her, she finally introduces him to judge Kimball, who had hired her originally to verify if Stan was indeed legit or not. Upon visiting Ritter at her office, they embark on an arrangement that has motivations Stan isn't fully aware of.
"Nightmare Alley" is very much a noir, one that while obeying to classic plot points, including the expected backstabbings, still flows effortlessly and with a precision that is a testament to the talent of Guillermo del Toro. Guillermo del Toro is a director with a very specific universe, one that is simultaneously shaped by his origins, but also by his focus on creatures that are while appearing to be monstrous, are in reality possessed of a humanity that far surpasses the characters typically considered human. While "Nightmare Alley" may feel at a first glance, his first film without supernatural elements or monsters, it soon becomes evident, that this universe he constructs, is very much a carnival populated with people on the fringes of society, where indeed the concept of monster or freak does exist. And Stanton falls in line with the series of monsters he typically focuses on: he may not be red tinted as "Hellboy" or blue tinted as the creature from "The Shape of Water", but Stanton is a broken individual trying to fit in,  mimicking what others have done, in order to gain love, acceptance, when he knows that his true nature is much darker than what is apparent to everyone. It's a film populated by humans performing monstrous actions, including Willem Dafoe's Clem, Richard Jenkins' Ezra and even Cate Blanchett's Lilith. It's a universe and a narrative worth embarking on, particularly since the film is so well constructed, featuring a remarkable cast, led by the always solid Bradley Cooper, who once again excels, with excellent support from the luminous Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins and Ron Perlman. The production team is also equally fantastic, including the beautiful cinematography from Dan Laustsen, score from Nathan Johnson and production design from Tamara Deverell. While some audiences will possibly dismiss this as a minor effort from Guillermo del Toro, it's nonetheless a very dark film, with a supple universe worth getting to know.