Thursday, May 5, 2022

Review: "NIGHTMARE ALLEY" is One of 2021's Very Best Films

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 27 of 2022 (No. 1839) by Leroy Douresseaux

Nightmare Alley (2021)
Running time:  150 minutes (2 hours, 30 minutes)
MPA – R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language
DIRECTOR:  Guillermo del Toro
WRITERS: Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan (based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham)
PRODUCERS:  Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale, and Bradley Cooper
CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Dan Laustsen (D.o.P.)
EDITOR:  Cameron McLauchlin
COMPOSER:  Nathan Johnson
Academy Award nominee


Starring:  Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Peter MacNeill, David Strathairn, Mark Povinelli, Holt McCallany and Paul Anderson

Nightmare Alley is a 2021 neo-noir crime thriller and drama directed by Guillermo del Toro.  The film is an adaptation of the 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley, which was written by William Lindsay Gresham.  Nightmare Alley the film focuses on a drifter who works his way from low-ranking carnival employee to acclaimed psychic medium on his way to his self-made doom.

Nightmare Alley opens in 1939 and introduces Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper).  A drifter, Stan gets a job at a carnival operated by Clement “Clem”Hoatley (Willem Dafoe).  He begins working with the carnival's clairvoyant act, “Madame Zeena,” (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband, Peter “Pete” Krumbein (David Strathairn).  They use coded language and cold reading tricks, which Pete keeps in a secret book.  Although Pete teaches tricks to Stan, he also warns him against using these tricks to be a mentalist that pretends to speak to the dead, known as a “spookshow.”

Stan becomes attracted to a fellow performer, Mary Margaret “Molly” Cahill (Rooney Mara), and he eventually convinces her to leave with him.  Two years later, Stan has successfully reinvented himself with a psychic act for the wealthy elite of Buffalo, and Molly is his assistant.  His act has attracted the attention of consulting psychologist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), and she is determined to reveal him as a fraud.  Thus, begins a cat and mouse game between Stan and Lilith that will destroy lives.

Nightmare Alley is not the first film adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's novel.  Hollywood legend Tyrone Power starred in a 1947 version in a bid to escape from the kinds of films (romance and adventure) that had made him a Hollywood star, but had also relegated him to the same kinds of roles (romantic leads and swashbuckling heroes).  From what I have read, Guillermo del Toro's 2021 version is more faithful to original novel than the 1947 film.

Some excellent and even great films are ruined or nearly ruined by their endings.  Del Toro's Nightmare Alley is solidified as a great film because of its ending, which brings back elements from the beginning of the film.  Bradley Cooper's Stan Carlisle is a doomed fool, a man consumed by greed and self-interest.  As his lust for power and greed for money and fame become more evident, Nightmare Alley turns truly prophetic.  A con man's ultimate mark is himself, and Stan never paid attention to the warnings, especially those that came when he first started working for Clem.

Although Cooper's status as the lead actor playing the lead character allows him to deliver a powerful performance, others in Nightmare Alley are also quite good.  Toni Collette, always good, is lovely here as the saintly, whorish, motherly Madame Zeena, while David Strathairn, also always good, is excellent as the pitiful prophet and father figure, Pete.  Cate Blanchett, decked in top notch hair and make-up and costumes, is the femme fatale as demoness, Lilith Ritter.  The film's best performance, however, is delivered by Rooney Mara, who in subtle shades and quiet gestures represents kind people in this film.  In a film determined to be dark and condemning, Mara's Molly is the film's humanity and hope.

As usual, Nightmare Alley offers Del Toro's haunting gothic visuals.  The production design, cinematography, costume design, and hair and make-up all capture this film's clash of vistas:  Depression-era destitution against a world of wealth, opulence, privilege, and corruption that ignored the poverty and decay right under their noses.  From ragged carnival garb to fabulous raiment; from the rundown world of carnies to the glow of swanky nightclubs:  Nightmare Alley is a vision of the darkness beneath the American dream and its illusions of wealth and power.  I have a few quibbles with Nightmare Alley, finding it a bit too dry, cold, and brittle in places.  Still, Nightmare Alley is another great film by the master of illusions, director Guillermo del Toro.

9 of 10
★★★★+ out of 4 stars

Thursday, May 5, 2022

2022 Academy Awards, USA:  4 nominations: “Best Motion Picture of the Year” (Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale, and Bradley Cooper); “Best Achievement in Production Design” (Tamara Deverell-production design and Shane Vieau-set decoration); “Best Achievement in Costume Design” (Luis Sequeira), and “Best Achievement in Cinematography” (Dan Laustsen)

2022 BAFTA Awards:  3 nominations: “Best Cinematography” (Dan Laustsen), “Best Costume Design” (Luis Sequeira), and “Best Production Design” (Tamara Deverell and Shane Vieau)

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