“Nightmare Alley” (2021): Get Him to the Geek (Review)

· Films & Video Games

★★★½

This movie references both of the two things that scare Austin Powers: (1) nuclear war, and (2) carnies.

Every Guillermo del Toro movie has at least two monsters.  There’s the movie monster, and there’s the “real” monster.  The movie monster is usually a victim or a misunderstood friend, or, perhaps, if it’s still something the good guys need to fight, more of a henchman or a creature of habit than a malicious actor.  Meanwhile, the “real monsters” are casually cruel human beings.

This is neither novel nor anything beyond childish as an enduring career theme, but sometimes del Toro expresses it in ways that are cinematically surprising.  Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army are his masterpieces.  Religious mythology and Catholic sentiment updated for the modern era; del Toro’s keen eye and Gothic style of graphic art suited him perfectly to the material.  So too do they suit him for his latest picture Nightmare Alley (2021).

A supernatural and crime noir thriller about a con artist (artist is very much a key word here) who uses carnival illusions to lure his emotionally vulnerable audiences into believing he can help them communicate with their dead loved ones; Nightmare Alley is a story of inward and outward manipulation.  Alcoholism, delusions of grandeur, cynicism, hubris, and projection fantasies all swirl within the downward spiraling mind of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper).  Imagine if Icarus loaded up on larger and larger quantities of liquid courage before each trip closer to the sun.

Bradley Cooper has not played a subdued, persistent character so uncomfortable with static silence since American Sniper.  It turns out that the skill he demonstrated there was not a fluke, but a new character archetype for him.  Far more effective than the nose-obsessed wet drunk he played opposite Lady Gaga in A Star is Born, Cooper doesn’t quite have the self centrism that made Tyrone Power perfect as the original Stanton Carlisle of 1947, but he plays him with a much greater range.  His neo Carlisle spends the first ten minutes of the film in complete silence, observing the geek and then even caring for one, and becomes more and more theatrical as the story progresses to its peak.  This is especially the case when his range is depicted opposite Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter.  You couldn’t pay me to spoil that payoff.

I have not seen a more effective remake since Martin Scorsese imprinted the Boston Bulger guilty Catholic setting and mood upon the story of Infernal Affairs in his 2006 Oscar winning epic The Departed.  Both the virtues and flaws of each remake are similar.  del Toro’s film’s principal weakness is that you can feel the greater length and contemplation.  Waiting periods are extended, scenes continue on past their logical cutting points, and the film lingers on the aesthetic, decorations, and on the respective positioning and blocking of the characters even when it isn’t necessary.  But while these added flavors, textures, and insights keep nu-Nightmare Alley from being as tightly efficient as the original noir, they give depth to the story at every turn.  For example, Carlisle attempts to romance Molly (Rooney Mara) via a dance on the Merry-Go-Round, and it looks like a planet trying to get its own moon.  That, as it turns out, is also an apt description of their entire relationship.

Mara herself is nowhere near as dynamic as Coleen Gray was in the original, but her looks do the job her skills do not.  The rest of the carnival cast, save for Willem Dafoe who always goes above and beyond what is required of him in the role to glorious effect,1 affords itself well enough by the same standard.  They all look like witches, gypsies, freaks, jesters, illusionists, and failed actors who all became a genuine community.  Mara may be slightly out of her depth, having to play the “normal” and increasingly ineffectual counterweight to the ambitions of Carlisle when her career has largely been defined as doing the opposite.  But Nightmare Alley solves that problem by giving Molly a different ending than the one she had in the original film.

One of the key motifs of the new film is the consciousness of the World War II era.  What had been taken for granted in 1946 when the book released, and still fresh in ‘47 when the film did, here is offered as another layering of social context for the era.  Nightmare Alley makes sense of the isolationist American mindset of the era by focusing on grief, loss, and transferred pain.  When Clem tells Carlisle about the invasion of Poland, his description of Hitler as “that German fella with the Chaplin mustache” (paraphrasing) conveys both the indifference and the bewilderment of someone who, despite traveling the country for the show, doesn’t really believe in getting out.  But beyond a simple signifier of the time, the audiences and “marks,” as Carlisle calls them, clearly have their minds on the cost of the prior world war.  The payoff of that B-story contains maybe the most horrifying image I’ve ever seen in a del Toro movie.

It may not seem like any of this describes a monster movie, let alone a del Toro monster movie, and in a larger sense that is part of its ingenious conceit.  In reality, all of this is a monster movie in exactly the same mode as his previous.  The film paces itself like a slow monster reveal, even though it begins with one, but it does so with consciousness of the tragedy reflected in the very same story.  I can’t imagine it will have the same effect as a depiction of alcoholic abuse as The Shining did, but the final sequences were exhilarating in the sobriety of their humane meaning.  Nightmare Alley is my movie of the year, and absolutely recommended.

– Vivek

  1.  Between Nightmare Alley and Spider-Man: No Way Home, December 17, 2021 may be Willem Dafoe’s greatest opening weekend ever.

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