Nightmare Alley (2021)

January 19th, 2022
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Guillermo del Toro | Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen | US Noir Thriller, 150′

One thing you can say about Guillermo del Toro’s follow up to his much vaunted take on Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon is that it looks amazing. In fact Dan Laustsen’s dazzling camerawork and Tamara Deverell’s lush production design make this moral fable watchable, along with starry cast of questionable characters that includes that captivating duo from Carol, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. Even Bradley Cooper excels himself as a blue-eyed, hunky grifter who brushes up well as the besuited antihero in the second half of this flawed but stylish Neo Noir thriller.

Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel this is (again) not the first screen adaptation, far superior was Edmund Goulding’s 1947 noir that starred Tyrone Power and Helen Walker as the psychic duo. Despite a bloated budget, this latest version overstays its welcome at well over two hours, and feels very much like two films rolled into one, and the end result is as hollow and soulless as the characters portrayed, although the shadow play and menacing original score by Nathan Johnson does much to install the requisite sinister sense of foreboding throughout.

In a dark and lugubrious travelling circus populated by freaks and losers, Bradley Cooper stands out as the bibulous Stan, a charismatic wayfarer with a twinkling eye and strange psychic gift, or at least the knack of spinning a yarn. Banding together with a motley crew of ‘carnies’, (carnival workers) he soon falls for one in particular in the shape of Molly (a luminous Rooney Mara), after being seduced by the much older stage magician Madame Zeena (Toni Collette).

You might be forgiven for drifting off through this often macabre but overstretched opening half, but things get much more interesting when the action transfers to a sophisticated, sinister urban setting where Cate Blanchett joins the party as Lilith, a soignée psychologist with lustrous Veronika Lake locks and the sinuous poise of Lauren Bacall. She plies her profession from the elegant confines of an office lined with plush sofas and beautiful marquetry. But you don’t trust her an inch, and neither does Stan as he slips under her psychic spell and the two becomes partners in crime, one being smarter that the other. Sadly Richard Jenkins, Willem Dafoe and Blanchett herself are underused in a script that is underpowered in comparison with the extremely slick aesthetics, and the gory scenes seem right out of place in a noir thriller, albeit one that combines elements of horror. MT


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