Nightmare Alley ★★1/2
Updated: Mar 8
Availability: Showing in some theaters nationwide; streaming on several services, including Hulu, HBO Max, and DirectTV; see JustWatch here for future availability.
Man or Beast?
In the first of many nearly black and white scenes in this color film, Stanton Carlisle lugs a dead body to its under-the-floorboards grave and sets fire to the house, where he was raised. Though a grifter and ultimately a killer, Bradley Cooper as Stanton evokes empathy and fascination, inheriting the charm (and the Stetson) of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. You’ll want him to succeed, even as he crosses the line from harmless magic show mind-reader to dangerously manipulative con-man.
Though a grifter and ultimately a killer, Bradley Cooper as Stanton evokes empathy and fascination.
Right, Molly (Rooney Mara)
tries but fails to be the
conscience of Stanton
Carlisle (Bradley Cooper).
Stan’s grifter talent, learned when he joins a carney show, is being a “mentalist,” someone who seems to read minds but in fact is just very good at interpreting body language and other physical cues. “People are desperate to tell you who they are,” says alcoholic, father figure Pete (David Strathairn), who teaches Stan the tricks of the trade. Pete performs with his wife Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), two of the more ethical characters in this tale of damaged people. The older mentalist tells Stan how to exploit the frailty of humans who have a need to fill holes in their lives, although some, he notes in a foreshadowing moment, “have a hole so deep it can’t be filled.” Pete and Zeena warn Stan about the temptation to move beyond the descriptive nature of the profession and to indulge one’s ego as therapist or psychologist. And that’s the set-up for Stan’s rise and fall.
“People are desperate to tell you who they are,” says alcoholic, father figure Pete (David Strathairn).
If only the rest of the film were as good as the set-up. Taking on the challenge as do many directors—to produce a noir when its era is the past—Guillermo Del Toro relies on stock characters in overly-lavish Art Deco settings. Stan’s foil is the classic femme fatale, Dr. Lilith Ritter, a therapist with a degree and the instincts of a grifter. Cate Blanchett’s caricaturish overacting (leaning back provocatively over her patient couch) earned her several “Best Supporting Actress” nominations in a climate of praise for the ham (perversely, Cooper himself in “Licorice Pizza”), but it makes her an unworthy adversary for Stan. We just don’t care about her.
Stan’s foil is the classic femme fatale,
Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, left),
a therapist with a degree and
the instincts of a grifter.
A solidly noir drama straight out of the 1940s’ Freudian era (with its probing of parental responsibility for the neuroses of offspring), “Nightmare Alley” is a remake of a 1947 production (starring Tyrone Powell), itself based on a 1946 novel. It probes at least one man’s mental and moral state, while making global, even Shakespearean, comments on the human condition (with echoes in today’s gullibility to charlatans). The carney manager Clem (Willem Dafoe) gives Stan a riveting lesson in how to convince a man (usually an alcoholic, whom one might find in a “nightmare alley”) to become the carney geek. The geek—“Is it man or beast?” shouts the carney barker—lives in a cage and eats live chickens.
"Nightmare Alley" is rescued from mediocrity by Cooper’s intense performance
and Stanton’s ambiguous persona, and by its exceptional production design,
including lavish Art Deco interiors, above.
Del Toro orchestrates a tension-filled, slow-paced, excessively long film. It’s rescued from mediocrity by Cooper’s intense performance and Stanton’s ambiguous persona, and by its exceptional production design, fashioned from the extraordinary Depression-Era architecture of Buffalo, New York: City Hall, Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s Kleinhans Music Hall, Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, the Mahoney State Office Building, and the city’s dark, rusted, somewhat threatening railroad underpasses from an earlier time. “Production Design” is the category for which it has been most nominated and has achieved several of its awards. “Nightmare Alley” has also earned Oscar nominations for Costume Design and Cinematography, the latter enhanced by numerous scenes shot in rain, snow, and darkness—a reference not only to film noir, but to the confinement of lives under Covid-19.
Buffalo New York's Depression-Era architecture also stars.
Above, its 1931City Hall (with fake snow being added).
Several fine actors give admirable performances (Strathairn, Collette, Dafoe, Cooper), yet the talents of others are squandered, especially Rooney Mara’s as Molly, Stan’s love interest, his innocent companion, and a moral compass. Del Toro doesn’t seem to know how to make Stan and Molly plausible as a couple, in part because a haunted and flawed Stan is incapable of caring deeply for another person. In the end Molly just runs off. We don’t know what happens to her and, again, we don’t care.
Right, Cooper as mentalist
Neo-noir can be fascinating (“LA Confidential,” “Bad Times at the El Royale”), but the genre has to do more than re-visit the 1940s in living color (with occasional nods to black and white). Del Toro, who is one of the best contemporary directors, winning 2018 Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director with the highly unusual “The Shape of Water,” doesn’t make that leap. Like “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley” fails to live up to its Best Picture Oscar nomination.
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn, Rooney Mara
Countries: United States, Mexico, Canada
Languages: English and French
Runtime: 150 minutes
Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Achievement in Production Design, Best Achievement in Costume Design, Best Cinematography
Other Awards: 16 wins (including AFI’s 2022 “Movie of the Year”) and 91 other nominations.