NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)

  • Platform: Hulu/HBO Max
  • Release Date: 01/12/2021
  • Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara
  • Director: Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro’s hellish nightmare of a film is an artistic and sensory delight of the highest order!

— Ambar Chatterjee

Nightmare Alley begins with a cryptic sequence where we see Stanton (Bradley Copper) burn a body and move on from the house with a watch and a radio. We are never told who the dead man was and who Stanton is. He ends up at the doorsteps of a Carnival and makes his way up through odd jobs and lands a hustler’s gig with Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), one of the performing artists at the carnival. He meets Molly (Rooney Mara), a fellow performer, and develops romantic feelings for her. He is also taken into tutelage by Zeena’s husband and a former mentalist, Pete (David Strathairn). Stanton learns the tricks of the trade of a mentalist from him and shows a natural knack for it. Soon Pete dies of consuming spurious liquor that Stanton handed him.

Days later, Stanton saves the folks of the carnival during a police raid using the skills that he learned from Pete. After this incident, he musters up enough confidence to move out of the carnival and make a mark for himself in a world where there is a big buck. He asks Molly to join him and she abides. For the next two years, the two do well for themselves. Stanton earns a decent buck but evidently wants more. His attitude towards Molly has also changed and he is more of a boss than a lover to her. Things are looking up for the couple until they meet Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a renowned psychologist of the town who serves as a counselor to some of the richest, most powerful, and dangerous men of the town. This meeting changes Stanton’s world forever.  

Nightmare Alley is a remake of a 1947 film that in turn was based on a novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. As is customary with most Guillermo del Toro films, there are no supernatural or science fiction elements here. This is more of neo-noir that borders on the threshold of horror due to its unsettling and morose tone and setting throughout. While there are no creatures or ghosts here, the film boasts of something scarier than any other creature or monster that lurks in the dark; the unpredictable nature of man and the evil that he is capable of doing to satisfy his greed and ambitions.

It is one of those rare films that inspired so many different emotions in me that I am a little confused as to how to put it all out in a single review. This is the kind of film that one needs to see at least a couple of times to sink in all the content and the thematic elements that it is laced with. I am confident that with every subsequent viewing the audience will enjoy and appreciate the various creative choices and the nuances of the execution a little more. There were so many things that dawned on me on the subsequent viewing that it elevated the appeal of the film. It isn’t every day that one gets a film that gets so much better in the subsequent viewings and I feel that this aspect of the film will definitely hold it in better steed in comparison to its peers.

Once the film ends, you realize that it was building up to certain things from the very first scene. You were shown certain things for specific reasons and because the director knew that certain characters would come about full circle to it. Thus in the repeat viewing, you see the implications of certain scenes and expositions in a different light and understand what purpose they serve in the greater scheme of things.

In the film’s initial sequences, you are introduced to something in the carnival that is referred to as a “Geek”. The Geek is a human who is purposefully drugged, tortured, kept hungry, and then fed live chicken in front of the audience to create a spectacle. How a normal man is converted to a “Geek” is explained by the character of Clem (Willem Dafoe) to Stanton. In my first viewing of the film, I wondered why they were concentrating on the “Geek” so much only to realize in the end the shocking finale that del Toro had envisioned for the protagonist.

The relationship between Stanton and Molly is used to show how far Stanton was slipping away from who he atleast pretended to be with her. She tries to put up with him for years but with time, she realizes that he has slipped further than she can bring him back from. There comes a time when she decides to walk away from him. Stanton cannot even let her do that as they have one last con to pull and Molly’s presence is absolutely critical for that.

The relationship between Stanton and Lilith is the enigma of the film as from it the film derives its thrill and surprises. Stanton starts off strong against her. Their first meeting is proof of that. He is always shown to be in a position of power with her and the two for a while seem to be on the same page and pulling off cons that would benefit both. But as the film progresses, it becomes exceedingly clear that Stanton has changed over the course of their meetings. Soon it becomes impossible to predict who is playing who until the curtains roll on the story.

Stanton and Ezra’s (Richard Jenkins) unholy association is another key aspect of the film. Ezra is an evil man who abandoned his love for being who is today and has over the years hurt other people to fulfill his sadistic fantasies. He wants to believe that Stanton is for real and wants to use him to relieve the burden of guilt that he carries on his shoulders. In short, he wants to buy his way into heaven. The manipulative Stanton learns from his sessions with Lilith and tells him things that only he could have known. Ezra then asks him to do something that Stanton knows he cannot but the money that he offers is too mouthwatering to put down. So what does Stanton do? He runs with the con, and that ultimately leads him to lose everything including his sanity.

Nightmare Alley is easily one of del Toro’s most performances driven films where the emphasis is on the drama and the performances more than the visual flair and the macabre. Bradley Cooper is phenomenal as the protagonist of the film. His essay documents the moral decay of a man who wasn’t a good human being to start with. He values riches and money more than anything and he is willing to go to any distance to become rich. He is talented and a quick learner. He is never outdone by situations and that is something that makes him even more dangerous. The gruesome end that his character gets, in the end, was something that I started predicting once his plan to con Ezra failed. The entire narrative of the film was building up to that end if one looks closely. Cooper sells every aspect of his character wonderfully and leaves such an impression that I was confused about how to feel about his character; whether to be sad about his final predicament or to loathe him for what he had done to his father, Pete, and every other character that trusted him. The final words out his mouth nearly brought me to tears even though it was a befitting end to a man who had harmed countless individuals.

Cate Blanchett violently oscillates between being a victim and the oppressor and it is really difficult to understand her motive until the very end of the film. What was driving her actions proved to be simple enough and that was something that was documented in the very first scene that her character appeared in. Blanchett is the kind of actor who can have you transfixed with her essay and that’s exactly what she does here. Her give and takes with Bradley Copper were easily the height point of the film but what worked wonders for me in terms of her performance was the scene where she reveals her actual motive. That sequence took her essay to a whole new level.  

As is the case wi, Nightmare Alley is gorgeous to look at. One can practically take a snapshot of any of the frames from the film and save it as a desktop background. That’s how pretty this film is and I have a strong hunch that Dan Laustsen will win the Oscar for best cinematography this year for this work here. It’s not just the visual flair but also the melancholic feel that the visuals bring to the story that haunted me. There isn’t a single scene in the film that has a happy vibe to it. A lot of the film’s mood is conveyed through its visuals and for that Laustsen has to be applauded.

At 2 hours and 30 minutes, this is in no way a short film. However, it is structured so wonderfully well, has such great performances, and looks so stunning that no one will care for how long it has been running. I would have liked it to go on a little further. That way I could have stayed in the psychedelic world of del Toro with his less than noble characters for a while longer. The narrative never pauses or meanders. The story is constantly on the move and that is one aspect of it that I loved. The only issue that some del Toro fans may have might have to do with the lack of the usual shock and awe that we have come to expect from Del Toro films. That is practically absent in this film as it is a dialed down and realistic neo-noir and one must accept it for what it is.

Nightmare Alley is a sensory treat that is laced with some of the best performances of the year. This film doesn’t leave you with a good taste in the mouth but that is how the story is. It even ignores the positive culmination of the 1947 film wherein Stanton is rescued by Molly. del Toro’s film ends with Stanton in hell and with him accepting his fate as he knows that he deserves no better. This is a must-watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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