CAST: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver, Mark Povinelli, Romina Power, Paul Anderson, David Hewlett, Lara Jean Chorostecki
RUNNING TIME: 150 mins
BASICALLY…: An ambitious carny (Cooper) teams with a dangerous psychiatrist (Blanchett) for a complex scheme…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Guillermo del Toro is a serious lover of movie monsters, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of. Sure, his films are often filled with fantastical creatures and sometimes terrifying designs, but the real menace comes from the unmistakably human forces that will brutalise anyone and anything in order to get what they want; in Pan’s Labyrinth, it isn’t the fawn or even the hand-eyed demon that we fear but the threat of fascist generals in the Spanish Civil War, while in The Shape of Water our sympathies lie with the aquatic creature rather than the cold-natured torturer who, were it made back in the 50s when traditional monster movies were all the rage, would have been the hero of the picture.
The point is, del Toro is very much interested in exploring the monstrousness in humanity within his films, and his latest project Nightmare Alley is his most purely human, and in some respects most horrifying, outing yet. It is also, as ever with a master filmmaker like del Toro, impeccably made and a true blast of pulpy entertainment all the way through.
Set in the early 20th century, we follow a man named Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) as he arrives at a travelling carnival seeking a job. His experiences around fellow carnies, including psychic act Zeena (Toni Collette), enable him to develop a serious gift for mentalism, and soon he’s off to enchant the high-class world with his talents, alongside his carny lover Molly (Rooney Mara). However, when he meets psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), Stan is drawn deeper and deeper into a scheme involving very powerful figure Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) which could potentially earn him plenty of riches, but at the cost of his already corrupted soul.
Guillermo del Toro’s love for film noir cinema shines through constantly during Nightmare Alley, with the director adopting a pulpy approach that highlights the old-fashioned Gothicism in everything from the alluring carnivals to the art-deco city rooms, and rat-a-tat dialogue (co-written by Kim Morgan) that feels like it genuinely could have come from noirs of the 40s or 50s. His, though, is a neo-noir with a devilish psychological edge, as you’re always uncertain about the main character’s true intentions until it’s too late for you to run; he’s so good at what he does that there are times when you’re convinced that he is as powerful as he claims to be, before the rug is pulled and you’re reminded that he’s just as human as the rest of them, but the fact that you’re genuinely so unsure is entirely the point. The same can be said about multiple other characters who all have their own secret desires, but again they’re all exceptionally talented at hiding their actual feelings that you feel all the vibrations as the rug is yanked from underneath your feet. The filmmaker allows the momentum to slowly build to the point where you’re completely suckered into their mentalist games, up to a point when – in true film noir fashion – the ugly truth reveals the real monsters prancing around in human skin.
It’s such a gripping story with fascinating characters, and a genuine love for dark, gloomy tales where the heroes are just as murky, if not more so, than the designated villains of the piece. Among the filmmaker’s starriest cast ensemble yet is a whole bunch of excellent performances, from a fantastic Bradley Cooper who oozes sleaze and egotism as our overly ambitious anti-hero, to a chilly Cate Blanchett who perfectly personifies the phrase “femme fatale”, while also leaving room for del Toro regulars like Ron Perlman and Richard Jenkins to also shine. They are almost outmatched by the incomparable production design, which even for del Toro feels like next-level stuff; there’s something neat to lay your eyes on in every corner of this carnival where we spend a good portion of the first half, including the elaborate fun-houses and wooden stages where the performers conjure up all their charisma to draw guests into, and even the gloomier scenes behind the curtain are masterfully shot and designed. It’s almost like a way better live-action remake of Dumbo than Tim Burton’s dud, only if a flying elephant with big ears not only doesn’t show up, but wouldn’t even be considered the freakiest creature at this carnival if it did (the crazed man-beast who bites heads off of chickens would fill that slot).
Going back to the earlier claim that Guillermo del Toro is a filmmaker who enjoys stories about human monsters, Nightmare Alley is filled to the brim with them, which you could argue makes this his most monster-infused outing to date. As already mentioned, the characters in this film each have dastardly and dangerous edges to them which they have little care or concern about as long as they get their just dues. However, it’s when people start getting emotionally, physically and even mortally injured that their far uglier side starts to show, often in shockingly violent reveals that have us questioning all that we thought to have known about them, and suddenly you’re left not knowing who in this crazy, morbid world you can fully trust. Their actions are driven by insatiable ego-driven lusts for power, fame, riches and notoriety, which slowly turn people like Bradley Cooper’s protagonist into, well, monsters, ones who know no limit to their potential even if it means they end up in the most dire of situations by the end.
As an example of his notable gravitation towards the monstrosity in our very souls, as opposed to simply displaying them in actual on-screen creatures, Nightmare Alley is a fascinating and gripping film for del Toro to flex his moral trademarks while also crafting a perfectly designed, brilliantly acted and overall well-made piece of filmmaking. As ever, he’s unafraid to point out the monsters within, using a delightful canvas of screwed-up individuals to point out just how much more dangerous and deadly we can be than sea creatures or giant fawns.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Nightmare Alley is a gripping neo-noir from filmmaker Guillermo del Toro that explores the dark monstrosities of its power-hungry and ego-driven human characters, played brilliantly by the likes of Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, while also delivering an impeccably designed and articulated piece of filmmaking that ranks among the director’s most visually stunning works. Also, points for feeling like a way better live-action remake of Dumbo than Tim Burton managed.