Saturday, January 08, 2022


Guillermo Del Toro's Nightmare Alley turned out to be the last movie I saw in 2021, and I can hardly imagine a better farewell to this year in which the world seemed increasingly claustrophobic, much of its citizenry engaged in duping or being duped, in blinding campaigns of continual carny-level chicanery elevated to national disaster, the duped refusing to believe their own eyes (and science) over the lies that line up with what they want to believe.

Not being entirely in the director’s bag (I had reservations about his last three movies, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak and even his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water) I resisted the pull of this picture for a good portion of its first half hour. But this nightmare vision sucked me in. Del Toro seems at the top of his game here, adapting the original novel and the 1947 movie classic from a script co-written with film critic Kim Morgan, and it’s a hellish, seductive vision. Moment to moment, the movie may often register as too much design, or too much physical detail, or just too much, period. But it gets into your bones, and your humanity, and your inhumanity, just as the original film did, just as all superb noirs do, and the audience that allows itself the distinct pleasure of settling into the world Del Toro conjures will be amply rewarded and unsettled.

Reports of Bradley Cooper as being miscast here (too old to be continually referred to as “young buck,” said the wags) are completely off the mark, especially when you see what the actor does with the character of drifter-turned-mentalist-phenomenon Stan Carlisle (Victor Mature in the 1947), and the harrowing inevitability of where he ends up. (I cannot shake his final image, or his final line.) But the entire cast responds to the thrall of Del Toro’s visual commitment, and to his refusal to be rushed into a overstimulated approach to laying out this fiercely beautiful and frightening milieu. Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, they’re all excellent as denizens of the carnival world Stan knows (or thinks he knows) he’s too sharp not to escape. And in crucial but smaller roles, as two of Stan’s higher-class marks, Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins make potent, indelible impressions.

However, a special place in my dark heart is reserved for Cate Blanchett, an actress I often receive as too diagrammed and distanced in her performances. But as she also proved in Thor: Ragnarok, she’s an actress who can be fully at home in cutting loose and embodying, precisely and pleasurably, the movie she’s in, and she conjures this femme fatale, a psychiatrist who ostensibly helps Stan with his entree into the world of the moneyed victims that will ultimately lead him straight to hell, with seductive, iconographic awareness, all the better for when she takes Stan in her teeth for the final bite. Her exit from this picture made me laugh out loud at the sheer audaciousness, both of the dialogue that provides her the perfect punctuation and of her instincts in the movie’s penultimate climax.

I’m not surprised that audiences at Christmastime during a pandemic are staying away from a picture whose advertising duly hints at the level of bleakness in store for them. But it’s a shame that the movie seems on its way out of theaters already— I caught the last performance at my local movie emporium— because this is a movie that knows how to deliver the goods to a receptive audience. I don’t know how well it will play at home, where distractions are aplenty, but having been happy to have submitted to it in the dark, I can’t wait to lay my hands on a Blu-ray in a couple months and find out. At the risk of sounding like a barker milling the masses to be fleeced, I’d encourage you to see Nightmare Alley on a big screen (fully masked, of course). Good show!


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