The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Blade 2 (2002)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)
Pacific Rim (2013)
Crimson Peak (2015)
The Shape of Water (2017)
What do these titles all have in common, aside from all ranging from Good to Great on the Quality Scale?
They were all directed by that mad Mexican genius Guillermo Del Toro and here he is again with another addition to his already impressive filmography; an addition that came with an estimate $60 million budget that undeservedly only scraped in about $38 million, making it a certified ‘bomb’ at the Box Office. And that really sucks, because this flick is expertly put together and I found myself sucked right into the bizarre, film-noir world of carnies and con-men that Del Toro adapted from a novel by William Lindsay Gresham.
This movie, similar to Del Toro’s underappreciated 2015 gothic romance / haunting flick, Crimson Peak, isn’t exactly what I would call a ‘popcorn’ flick for the masses, which would partially explain it’s Box Office failure (fucking Covid 19 also played a big part!). But for those who appreciate a film that ‘breathes’ and takes it time spooling out it’s story, it all builds to a very satisfying conclusion. But more on that later!
The oddly named Nightmare Alley (truly, the title has VERY little to do with anything the story gives us) follows the seedy and tragic exploits of ‘Stan’ (Bradley Cooper), a small time grifter in the 1940’s with a sinister past who falls in with a traveling carnival, eventually rising to prominence with a highly convincing mentalism act. He and his assistant ‘Molly’ (Mara Rooney) eventually strike out on their own, with their own hustle, only to encounter a cunning therapist named ‘Dr. Lilith Ritter’ (Cate Blanchett) who seems bent on revealing them as charlatans. It’s once ‘Stan’ and ‘Ritter’ engage in a strange, ‘who’s manipulating who’ relationship that things begin to slide, especially after a wealthy ‘client’ enters the picture.
Going in, I knew that, at least, I would get a movie that would be pretty to look at. Luckily, I ended up getting a lot more.
So, last weekend (I’ll be honest, Life kept getting in the way of finishing this review, my first in months), I parked my ass with a small cauldron of coffee on an early Saturday morning and hit Play on Nightmare Alley, pad and pencil ready to go.
Here lie those 6 AM scribbles…
–Intriguing open – Cooper, Body, Fire etc. I love me a good, cold opening and this was no exception. We are introduced to a rough-looking ‘Stan’ (Bradley Cooper) in a dilapidated house as he drags a wrapped corpse to a large hole in the floor, before setting the whole place ablaze. Why this is happening? Who knows…but the answer comes to us later.
–Slick but subtle transition – Sleeping on the bus. This one was nothing more than a simple fade of the background but it was executed nicely and conveyed the passage of time effectively and stylishly.
–Heavy ‘Carnivale‘ vibe, which is awesome. May need to rewatch. In my humble opinion, HBO’s excellently promising 2003-2005 dark fantasy series Carnivale is one of those text-book examples of art cut short in it’s prime by the financial realities that often rear their ugly heads in ‘Hollywood’. The series, of which we only got two seasons out of the planned six, did a superb job making the titular carnival and it’s eclectic group of ‘carnies’ a strange and unique world onto themselves and Nightmare Alley follows suit, right down to the exhaustive detailing.
–Poor chicken. If you know anything about freakshow ‘geeks’, you’ll understand why I scribbled this. Not exactly an easy scene to watch and what happens is exactly what you’d think happens.
–Perlman. Of course, he’s The Strongman. Ron Perlman (Alien Resurrection) is no stranger to the work of Guillermo Del Toro, having appeared in at least four of the director’s previous films, going back to Del Toro’s first feature, Cronos, in 1993, so it came as little surprise to see him turn up in a small but impactful role as the carnival’s token Strongman.
–Gorgeous production design. As with all of Del Toro’s films, the overall production design is near flawless and compliments the tone of the story beautifully.
–Clifton! Clifton Collins Jr. (The Rules of Attraction) is a chameleon-like actor who I always enjoy when he turns up and here was no different, with him popping up as ‘Funhouse Jack’, another of the carnival’s oddball employees.
–Dafoe, as usual, is great. And yes, the crazy awesome casting continues, with the legendary Willem Dafoe (Platoon) showing up in the key role of ‘Clem’, a long-time carnival worker who details the ins and outs of the carnie world to ‘Stan’ after he joins the show’s expansive ranks. He also steals a key scene of exposition that ties in beautifully with the appropriately twisted ending.
–Collette? Strathairn?! Helluva cast! And that would be Toni Collette (Hereditary) and David Strathairn (Sneakers), two top-notch thespians who always elevate any material they’re in and here was no different.
–The dangers of believing your own press starts to show. Ah yes, the inherent lesson / theme starts to emerge, as ‘Stan’ begins getting recklessly egotistical with his new ‘act’, seeming to believe the ‘powers’ of his charade.
–Mary Steenburgen?! Again, someone buy the casting agent a beer, because it keeps getting better and better! I haven’t seen Steenburgen in anything recently, but I will always remember her from Parenthood (1989). It’s good to see this woman back on screen, even if just for a few scenes. Her last one is a doozy!
–Blanchett – solid ‘femme fatale’. That. Right there. Cate Blanchette (The Lord of the Rings) definitely brings ‘it’ to the role of ‘Lilith Ritter’, the complicated therapist with an axe to grind with ‘Stan’, who gets into a seductive but slippery relationship with the expert mentalist, with unexpected consequences.
–Holt as well?! Holt McCallany (Alien 3) is an actor I always like seeing onscreen, especially when he’s working for David Fincher (Fight Club). Here he plays ‘Anderson’, the personal bodyguard for ‘Ezra Grindle’ (Richard Jenkins), a rich and influential figure in the socialite scene who comes to employ ‘Stan’ for his apparent powers of clairvoyance. It doesn’t go well.
–Mentalism turned to 11. It would be easy to see where Del Toro could’ve gone the supernatural route with this one but instead, everything has a real-world explanation, even the near mystical abilities of ‘Stan’ as he demonstrates his near effortless ability to read his ‘marks’.
–THERE’S the gore I was waiting for. This is not an overtly violent film, more of a slow-burn, moody film-noir drama but, being Del Toro, if there HAS to be violence, it’s going to be brutal and gruesome. A couple instances definitely stand out for those reasons and given how little there had been in the narrative lead-up, the brutality shocks and resonates.
–Out grifting the grifter. Damn. If I delve into this one too deeply, we’ll be sailing straight into Spoiler Territory, but rest assured, you’ll know what I mean when you see it.
-____________ is evil! This scribble once contained an actor’s name but, as with the note above, it would be taking you, dear Reader, straight to Spoiler Town. Let’s not go THERE.
–Geek. Perfect. And again, to avoid Spoilers, I’ll just say this…as I mentioned earlier about Dafoe and a key piece of expository dialogue in Act One, the idea comes full circle and I found it surprisingly satisfying.
–Wow. Absolutely solid. Kinda sums it up, don’t it.
I really enjoyed Nightmare Alley and can definitely see myself revisiting it in the future, to pick up on any little hints or details that I may have missed on this first viewing.
It boasts a terrific cast, a beautiful production design, impeccable cinematography and a storyline that can rub its shoulders up against the best the film-noir genre has to offer. Personally, the only real negative I can see (that did not bother me, though I did notice it) is the slightly bloated run-time of 2 and a half hours. For a flick that is NOT all *WHIZZ!* and *BANG!* like, say, Hellboy or Pacific Rim, that will definitely leave some of the less sophisticated viewers bored and antsy. But if you’re into a lushly produced period drama / thriller that gives you the narrative room to breathe as you get to know the multitude of interesting characters and the sordid world they inhabit, you will be well served by the time the credits roll.
This ain’t no con and if you ain’t no rube…check out Nightmare Alley!