Following up his 2017 Best Picture winner "The Shape of Water," director Guillermo del Toro adapts "Nightmare Alley," a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham. It's a seemingly natural fit for the director who loves to deconstruct the concept of what makes someone (or something) a "monster," so it's no surprise really that this would be a premise that is right up his...alley.
"Nightmare Alley" is one of the most gloriously produced films of 2021, bar-none, from every technical stand-point imaginable. The cinematography and sound are spell-binding, the rich colors, costumes, hair and make-up are all destined for Oscar glory. If there wasn't another little technically-astounding film called "Dune" that came out already this year, "Nightmare Alley" would already have most of these prizes in the bag.
Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, never better) is a carny, a bright and astute man who joins a traveling carnival that rolled near his recently burnt-down home. As one would imagine, he meets a marvelous assortment of characters and personalities, headed by Clem (Willem Dafoe), the business-minded show-runner who takes Stan under his wing. There is the strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman), Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and the mentalist Pete (David Strathairn), but it's the magician assistant Molly (Rooney Mara) that catches Stan's eye. Moving slowly and deliberately watching and observing for months, Stan learns to master the craft that Pete has unveiled to him, and Stan becomes one of the greatest "mind-reading" mentalists there ever was.
Growing too big for his britches at Clem's carnival, he decides to sweep Molly off of her feet and the two take their show out on the road. That's where Stan runs into Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who may finally be a match (or more so) for Stan's intellect and skills. They get caught up in a scheme with a lonely tycoon, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), who believes that Stan can put him in touch with his late lover even from beyond the grave.
"Nightmare Alley" feels like two splendid movies smashed together into one, a sandwich that looks deliciously appetizing from the outside but upon closer examination reveals little in the way of meat. The world that del Toro creates inside Clem's carnival could have easily been its own movie, but it seems underdeveloped...we spend quite a lot of time there, but it doesn't seem like there is much in the way of pay-off. Mostly, it exists as a bit of backstory for Stan and Molly, and in a different film, might have taken up a few minutes with one or two flashback scenes. You'll want more from this carnival world, but once Stan vacates the premises, we're on to the "second film," a much more satisfying tale of thrills, mystery, intrigue and mental chess among two provocative players.
There is a full-circle story here that makes "Nightmare Alley" resonate as one of the better films of 2021, even if there is a feeling that a better, tighter film exists somewhere within its bloat. It does contain one of the most harrowing final shots and reveals of the year, a shot that makes you re-contextualize much of what you saw earlier on in the film, with new understanding.
In lesser hands, this high-wire act of trickery might have been a full-on disaster, but in del Toro's capable hands, it becomes quite a spectacle that most will stand and applaud.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller.
Run Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn.
Co-Written and Directed by Guillermo del Toro ("The Shape of Water," "Crimson Peak," "Pacific Rim," "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," "Hellboy," "Pan's Labyrinth").
"Nightmare Alley" is in theaters on Wednesday, December 15th, 2021.
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