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Thursday, December 23, 2021

Nightmare Alley


Nightmare Alley
finds the wonderful filmmaker Guillermo del Toro in his element, telling a tragic Noir story about a carnival con man who gets conned in a psychological game.  So, why does the movie feel so dragged out and empty emotionally?  The movie is mesmerizing in its visuals and shady 1930s carnival atmosphere for the first hour or so, but all of its thrills are on the surface.  Del Toro never allows his audience to connect fully with his material, and for all of its intriguing visual trappings, there's little to discover here.  At least not enough to warrant the film's slow burn pace, and two and a half hour run time.

The film is based on a 1946 novel, which was adapted into a film already back in 47, which told the story with less style, but with a quicker and less dragged out pace.  It took the earlier movie an hour for del Toro to cover similar territory in two hours.  The film follows a wandering man named Stan Carlisle (played here by Bradley Cooper).  We know from the opening scene that Stan is running from his past, though the truth behind why he is running is not fully known to us until later.  His journey leads him to a traveling carnival run by the shady Clem (Willem Dafoe).  It is through Clem that Stan learns some of the tricks of the trade, most notably how Clem finds his "geek" who bites the heads off of chickens.  The story behind the geek and how a person is manipulated into performing such an act lends an aura of tragedy to the film that will lay heavily over the story.  We get ready for sadness, but what I was not ready for was how hollow the whole film would feel.

That sadness continues as we are introduced to some of the other performers in Clem's carnival, who are usually past their prime.  Such examples are the married couple of Pete (David Strathairn) and Zeena (Toni Collette), who run a psychic act that is barely hanging on, thanks to Pete's alcoholism.  The moments with Stan exploring the carnival and learning its secrets are where the film is at its best, as it lends a kind of mystery and tone that we don't see very often in modern thrillers.  I would have loved to have seen del Toro truly dive into this material, but it's not meant to be.  Instead, at some point, Stan leaves the carnival life behind when he falls for the "electric girl" Molly (Rooney Mara), and they build a life together doing a psychic act of their own using some of the tricks Stan picked up from Pete and Zeena.  Their act becomes a hit, allowing them to play in fancy hotels to appreciative audiences.

Del Toro has always had a passion for the paranormal, but here, the paranormal elements are all a ruse Stan uses to con wealthy people.  From here, the movie dives head-first into Noir thriller territory, where Stan hooks up with a femme fatale psychiatrist named Lilith (Cate Blanchett).  The seductive and dangerous relationship that is supposed to grow between Stan and Lilith simply isn't as strong.  When the movie becomes focused on their psychological con game on the wealthy elite and, eventually on each other, I didn't buy it because frankly, Cooper doesn't seem sinister enough, and Blanchett is giving a rare uninspired performance that's simply one-dimensional vamping.  She's all seduction and shadows with little going on underneath.  And when we do learn about her game, it's not worth the waiting we had to go through in order for the truth to be revealed as to what is really going on.

Nightmare Alley is easy to pick up on where the film is going, but it takes so long to get there that I started to lose interest.  I was captivated by the images, the costumes, the sets, and the usual visual style that the director always brings, but I also found myself gradually becoming frustrated.  We know that Stan is going to get in over his head with his psychic con, that Lilith is plotting something the entire time, and that Molly is going to feel betrayed by the time everything is over, and we're proven right.  But, the movie takes so long getting to that point that it's kind of maddening.  There are scenes here that go on way too long, and probably would have been great if they had been trimmed.  And there are great scenes as well that hint at what the movie could have been with a tighter focus and run time.


I can only recommend this as a visual experience, and I almost want to recommend the film on that level, but I simply cannot.  This is not a bad movie in the slightest.  It's simply a movie that needed deeper characterization and a quicker pace to truly work.

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