Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Nightmare Alley (2021): A Review



It seems at first strange that a film like Nightmare Alley could have flopped at the box office. It has been lavishly praised by my fellow critics, has major stars like Bradley Cooper and its director, Guillermo del Toro, is loved by both cineastes and comic book fanboys. However, Nightmare Alley had the misfortune to open against the juggernaut known as Spider-Man: No Way Home. It also is a noir film as well as a remake of a film a large number of people have never heard of. All those elements, I think, made Nightmare Alley a hard sell to general audiences no matter how much heavy promotion Turner Classic Movies gave it (it hosted del Toro and co-screenwriter Kim Morgan as TCM guest hosts and played the original Nightmare Alley maybe three or four times the same month). 

While I have yet to see the original as of this writing, this Nightmare Alley is slow, slow, slow, forever taking its time to get to where it needs to go and not knowing when to stop.

Professional huckster Stanton Carlisle (Cooper) has a shady past already when he weasels his way into a carnival. Here, he soon starts integrating himself into various acts, mostly that of "mind reader" Zeena (Toni Collette) and her much older husband, alcoholic Pete (David Strathairn). Unsurprisingly, Stan and Zeena have been getting it on while she and Pete continue to con the mugs.

It is not long however until Pete dies, but by now Stan has ended his fling with Zeena and turned his eyes to the virginal Molly (Rooney Mara), who is able to absorb huge electrical bolts. They go off together to start their own version of the Zeena/Pete con, but this time to the gullible elites. One of those not gullible is psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who sees easily through their con. However, she may be something of a con herself, getting Stan to dupe a judge and his wife who lost their son during the war.

Things, however, take an ugly turn when despite warnings from everyone from Molly to Ritter to Zeena herself, Stan decides to do a "spook show" and claim to be a medium. This brings him to the attention of wealthy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), who asks to have his former mistress Dory summoned. Using information secretly recorded by Ritter, Stan concocts a wild scheme. However, that scheme takes shocking and deadly set of turns, leading to death and a fall for Stan into geekdom.

I have developed somewhat of a fixation with running times in film. Dune seems to be the standard to which I'm judging all 2021 films with regards length. Nightmare Alley runs a stunning six minutes shorter than the first half of an epic space opera. As such, there is such a bloat to Nightmare Alley that you wonder why it takes so long to get where it is going. 

Del Toro could easily have trimmed much of the first hour where we are at the carnival to get to Stanton's long con. However, that would mean taking away a lot of the atmosphere that del Toro clearly loves. Nightmare Alley is heavy on atmosphere but not much in terms of story, at least again until Stanton and Molly leave for the bright lights of Buffalo. 

Once we leave the carnival, Nightmare Alley seems to wake up, bringing up a more interesting story and building on itself. However, by then many audience members might be dead-asleep from how long the film is. You do feel as if you are waiting for something to happen while del Toro indulges in carnie nostalgia.

It is a shame that Nightmare Alley opted for giving us atmosphere because it has some surprisingly good performances. I would not count Bradley Cooper among them though, even though he did try. His Stanton Carlisle was a bit hemmed into himself trying too hard to be either charming or mysterious. He gave it a good go but somehow, I did not see him as either charming or mysterious. He did manage sleazy well, so there is that.

Blanchett went perhaps a bit too strong on the femme fatale manner, but it works well here. Mara conversely did not make it work well when she played the polar opposite of the virginal Molly. She came across as sleepwalking. Collette and Willem Dafoe as Zeena and a freak show carnie were better. Jenkins seemed to be from a whole other movie altogether and to my mind seemed a bit forced as the mysterious and ultimately dangerous villain.

Nightmare Alley has a positive in its excellent production work and cinematography. Here we do see the sense and feel of the early 1940s, or at least the idea of the era.

If not for its seemingly endless first hour that drags the film down, I would have thought better of Nightmare Alley. It might be worth looking at versus watching, to enjoy the aesthetics for the first hour, the story for the second.


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