Nightmare Alley (2021)

Guillermo del Toro is one of the few recognizable auteur directors in modern cinema.  He constantly straddles the line between art and mainstream with a number of his films being considered genre classics and often achieving cult status even if they don't always do too well in the theater.  In fact, that seems to be part of del Toro's biggest problem.  Movies like Pacific Rim often become highly regarded well after their initial theatrical release, thus making it appear as if a big-budget movie with del Toro is a gamble.

Gamble or not, he's an excellent director, managing to win an Oscar with something as strange as The Shape of Water and making one of the best dark fantasy movies of all time with Pan's Labyrinth, despite being in Spanish and taking place in a part of European history few Americans know about.  Of course, the movie was made for a Spanish audience, but the themes of overcoming brutality and childhood trauma by slipping into a fantasy world were universal.

Nightmare Alley deals more with the real world and the danger of knowingly creating fantasies to help others deny their own reality.  It also touches on classic themes such as hubris and fate.  Del Toro adapted it from the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, which had been previously made into a film in 1947, with Tyrone Power in the role that Bradley Cooper plays this time around.  Although certain instances that happened in the original film are referenced in del Toro's version, this is largely his interpretation of the book rather than a cinematic remake.  And, while real-life events kept most people from seeing it in the theater, like many of del Toro's movies it is slowly finding its audience.

A young man named Stanton Carlisle (Cooper) hits the road in 1939 and joins a sketchy carnival run by a man named Clem (Willem Dafoe).  While there he begins learning the tricks of the trade - largely mentalism from a woman named Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn).  He also becomes enamored of a young lady named Molly (Rooney Mara) who does a show involving electricity.  Eventually Carlisle tires of the carnival life and he convinces Molly to strike out with him on their own. 

Two years later he and Molly have become popular for their show, in which he employs all the tricks he learned from Zeena and Pete.  During a show in Buffalo he is confronted by Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cait Blanchett), a psychiatrist that tries to prove him a phony.  His ability to read her convinces her client, Judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill) that Stanton is the real thing.  With Molly starting to have second thoughts about her relationship with Stanton, he and Lilith begin to plan a major grift of not only the judge but Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a powerful and dangerous millionaire.  

Since Nightmare Alley is not one of Guillermo del Toro's monster or fantasy films - at least not one with made-up monsters - it was made on a moderate budget as a ton of effects weren't needed.  The main focus, outside of getting performances out of what had to be a dream cast, was on sets.  A good portion of the movie takes place in Buffalo, New York in the early 1940s as the United States was suddenly thrust into war with Japan and Germany.  While life still nominally goes on there is a background tension as the reality of war sinks in.  That Carlisle, an obviously able-bodied man, is more interested in running a scam rather than jumping at the chance to defend his country pretty much says a lot about him at this point, especially after some of the ambiguity regarding his character at the beginning.  

It's that ambiguity that is a bit unsettling, as the movie starts off showing the seedier side of carnival life before it switches gears into a throwback noir tale.  Without revealing any major plot points, one of the best things del Toro does is not try to insert any actual supernatural activities or explanations, making it plain that even someone like Pete, who seems to be quite convincing, is just so good at his profession that he can fool himself into believing.  To have suddenly thrown the paranormal into the mix at any point would have complete undercut Stanton's eventual downfall.

Needless to say Cooper is excellent in the part, at first playing Stanton as someone that may or may not be sympathetic before it settles into its main story.  Rooney Mara plays a strong role, thankfully written so that Molly has her own autonomy without any jarring modern-day judgments intruding.  Cait Blanchett gets to play the femme fatale role, while Richard Jenkins often underplays the role of Ezra Grindle, to the point where his bursts of rage are truly frightening.  Toni Collette and David Strathairn are solid as usual, and Willem Dafoe is his typical creepy self. 

While certainly not another Pan's Labyrinth or The Shape of Water, Nightmare Alley still shows del Toro evolving as a director, and somewhat away from the horror and fantasy genres he's known for.  I am also hoping that some point one of his minor films, like this one, may get the attention and audience it deserves while still in the theater.  It is nice knowing that there is still much more to him than we have seen.

Nightmare Alley (2021)
Time: 150 minutes
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cait Blanchett, Richard Jenkins
Director: Guillermo del Toro



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