Review: Nightmare Alley

If there’s one film genre that doesn’t often see new entries made in the modern cinema landscape, it’s film noir. Those early 20th century-set thrillers combined sultry, nihilistic characters in storylines rich in double meaning, greed, shocking crimes and a line in excellent costumes, and still maintain a power over disparate genres including comic book cinema (Sin City), science fiction (Blade Runner), and many more.

Thankfully, the genre’s been brought back to life by director Guillermo del Toro, usually more known for his richly-made, sumptuous monster movies (his most recent, The Shape of Water, even won big time at the Oscars). Here, he takes a story from a 1946 novel (previously adapted into a film), and throws his love of monsters and monstrosity, as well as lavish sets and strong characters, together into a brilliant noir revival.

Nightmare Alley sees nobody Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) escape a dark past by assimilating into a travelling carnival, in which he starts to learn the ropes of mentalism: using people’s tics and gestures against them for gain, such as psychics and mind-readers do. However, Stan outgrows the carnival, and his lust for wealth, power and glory attract him to the city, where he meets his match in both psychotherapist Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), and mysterious rich client Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).

Straight off the bat, it’s worth noting that this is a long film, but one that doesn’t drag. That’s to say that if you’re invested in the story, it’ll power along for you. Del Toro’s screenplay, written with Kim Gordon, crafts this noir tale expertly with his keen insights into the monstrosity of man (not outwardly and fantastically this time). Instead, it’s the fantasies of speaking with the dead or the appearance of supernatural powers that we see, via Stan’s mastery of mentalism.

The whole film is a love letter to the genre, the period and its movies, and the attention to detail onscreen is backed up by the script’s intricacies. Themes of rebirth, cycles, paths not travelled and foreshadowing colour what we see, and revelations are parcelled out as unpredictably as characters’ sympathetic natures are suddenly flipped to show their true, darker selves. Conversely, others are open books, and are more tragic or sympathetic for remaining true to themselves.

In setting the film in two contrasting environments (a gritty, unseemly carnival and a snow-saturated, glossy Art Deco city), del Toro indulges his love of misunderstood “freaks” and inhuman, unhinged men and women. His script sparkles with unsettling discussions, loaded conversations and a mastery of tension, which builds and dissipates throughout but punctuated with moments of shocking, realistic violence and horror that aren’t for the faint of heart.

Don’t assume this means the film is a horror: if it’s horrific, it’s in its depiction of how humanity can manipulate and mistreat one another in any number of grim ways. Del Toro directs with regard for the character actors and performers he’s assembled, letting scenes flow while also bringing in visual flair when it’s needed. The script meanwhile brings an old but well-trodden storyline of greed and its end results to the modern world, and not many noirs have looked this good or been this lavishly made.

The real-life locations, practical sets and excellent constructions all give it so much more tangibility than the older noirs had, in particular the real carnival set (constructed pre-COVID, left up during lockdowns, and accidentally looking as grim and uninviting as the naffest fair does. Once we move to the city, Dan Laustsen’s cinematography accentuates the Art Deco glitz and glam, with Lilith’s gold and marble office like something out of a Wall Street powerbroker’s wildest dreams.

Natural and unnatural lighting alike provide visual illustrations of the extremes of wealth, success and power, across high-end bars, isolated mega-mansions and grimy, gloomy trainyards. It’s in large part thanks to Laustsen’s efforts that the film feels so of its era, as well as the set and costume designers who make everything feel like it’s come through a portal to the past. It’s sumptuous, dark, bleak and hard to take your eyes away from.

Nathan Johnson’s score also helps, perfectly accompanying the slow burns and shocking twists and turns with period-sympathetic score, while editor Cam McLauchlin envelopes scenes in flashbacks to Stan’s past to illuminate his motivations and to remind us of who the man really was and is.

Such a film revolving around an actor means you need someone great to take the protagonist role, and here Bradley Cooper gives a really very excellent performance. Often the hearthrob, Cooper is a great actor and has the face of a leading man, but the eyes of a character actor. He paints Stan as a constant schemer who’ll sink to no low to get ahead, consumed with escaping his past and crafting himself a new reality.

Cooper paints Stan as someone always trying to improve his lot, but the facade is never far from slipping, and the actor’s great at showing a sort of deadness in the eyes that belies Stan’s silky words. As he builds himself up to a point where hubris and power threaten his “empire” built on lies, Cooper is seriously impressive, especially when painting a picture of a man about to have everything collapse in scenes where his mentalism is challenged.

Entering halfway through and stealing the show, Cate Blanchett gives a performance I can only describe as the antithesis of the usual femme fatale in noirs. Lilith’s steel and professionalism is tinged with seductive danger, and the many layers to this enigmatic character are perfectly suited to an actress like Blanchett. She gives hints of vulnerability and slight slips of the mask, but utterly dominates scenes with Cooper that are a great match between mental insight for the betterment or manipulation of humanity.

If Lilith is the other half of Stan’s questionable ethical mindset, Rooney Mara’s Molly is the audience surrogate: she’s essentially the moral core, a sweet girl seduced by escape, adventure and power. This could have been a thankless, powerless role, but Mara underlines Molly’s submission to Stan’s manipulations with a strength harking back to her sense of family and home in the carnival.

At the carnival, there’s a rogue’s gallery of character actors to enjoy. Willem Dafoe’s Clem appears early on and embodies a can-do, exploitative type of person that teaches Stan all the wrong lessons (and shows what he might have become had he remained). Ron Perlman’s bruiser Bruno is the carnival’s strongman in more ways than one, with del Toro’s mainstay emanating a power and menace that again foreshadows Stan’s experiences to come.

More pertinent to Stan’s later acts are Toni Collette’s psychic Zeena and husband Pete, the two great performers a core part of the film’s early promise. Zeena opens Stan’s mind to mentalism and seduction, but Collette gives her a sense of stasis and sadness that embodies the transient but stock-still carnival life; Strathairn meanwhile paints a pathetic, broken and tragic man in Pete who’s seen what manipulations the human mind can fall for, and been crushed by it. Reluctant to pass on his powerful secrets, he makes a strong impression in a brief role, as another potential future for Stan.

Finally, back in the city, Richard Jenkin’s Ezra Grindle embodies the extreme wealth of some in the era (contrasted greatly with the poverty and destitution glimpsed among the homeless). A nervy, jittery and demanding man full of secrets, Grindle comes closest to rumbling Stan, and Jenkins emanates a weak but profoundly unnerving power in his enigmatic performance.

For noir fans, I can’t recommend Nightmare Alley enough. For all other film fans looking for something well-acted and gorgeous to look at, with a great story, this is well worth a watch.

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