“Nightmare Alley” is based on a book from 1946. That book was made into a movie in 1947. For this movie, current director Guillermo del Toro is famous for film with supernatural and fantasy elements. But he has decided to make a new adaptation of the story with no ghosts or monsters. Except for the scariest Monster of them all – Man.
Stan Carlisle (played by Bradley Cooper) leaves a burning house in the middle of nowhere. He might have done something very wicked, and he decides to hightail it out of there. He winds up at the end of the line. There is small carnival run by a man named Clem (played by Willem Dafoe).
Stan is penniless, and he takes an offer to work. Clem tells Stan the story of the carnival ‘geek’. The geek is a profitable sideshow, and the audience eats it up. The geek is just a poor alcoholic guy who is so low that he is put on display to bite off chicken heads. Easy work if you get it, right? Stan meets other carnival workers. Bruno (played by Ron Perlman) is the strong man. Molly (played by Rooney Mara) is a young woman who has an act where she pretends to be electrocuted.
Stan gets in good with the husband and wife team of Zeena (played by Toni Collette) and Pete (played by David Strathairn). Zeena practices the mystical arts and reads tarot cards. Pete was a mentalist, but his years of heavy drinking have made him give up the ‘reading of minds’. All of these are nothing more than scams, working to get the most money out of the ‘marks’. People want to believe that these things are true. Pete will never cross the line to work with an individual to con them to believe he can speak to a dead loved one.
Stan finds out that Pete has a book that he developed with Zeena over the years. The catch phases used will guide Pete as to what the ‘mark’ wants to hear. Stan really lusts over having this book. It is almost as much as he lusts over Molly. Bruno always looks out for Molly, to make sure she does not get in over her head. But after an ‘accidental’ death, Stan is able to get Pete’s book. He and Molly leave the carnival and take off on their own.
Years later, Stand and Molly are married. They perform in swanky nightclubs doing Pete’s old mentalist act. They are the talk of the town. But still Stan wants a lot more. He wants more fame, and especially he wants more fortune. He is dressed up in nicer clothes now, but still he has the ‘carney’ attitude and the con man mentality.
During a show, Stan and Molly meet Dr. Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchett). She is a local psychiatrist with a laundry list of rich and important clients. Ritter convinces Stan to meet in her office. She wants to analyze him and see what makes Stan tick. Stan reluctantly agrees, but Ritter tells him of other adventures that they could work on together. One of her clients is in need of some spiritual guidance, so to speak.
Lilith Ritter has a patient named Ezra Grindle (played by Richard Jenkins). He is richest man around, but his heart is troubled. He lost a loved one many years ago. Many fake ‘mind readers’ have tried to swindle Ezra out of his money by saying they can connect Ezra to his lost love. Stan gets the idea that he would be able run an elaborate con, with the assistance of the information that Ritter keeps in her office.
But is Stan ready for the ultimate con job? Can he convince Molly to help him, now that he has the affections of Lilith Ritter? Pete’s old advice about never getting too deep into the personal emotions of the ‘mark’ falls on deaf ears. Stan thinks that this is the way to his future success. But will it instead lead to a more dangerous and deadly end?
“Nightmare Alley” is a change of pace for Guillermo del Toro. This adaptation is pretty true to the original story. But that is part of the problem. It is a movie with superb casting and flawless production design. However, the plot seems to drag a bit over the long run time. Each actor gives a brilliant performance. Especially fine work is done by Cate Blanchett. Also a terrific performance is given by David Strathairn. Bradley Cooper is super sleazy in his role, which turns out to be perfect.
If there was little tighter editing to the story line, and the story was told in a more straight forward manner – that might cut down of the run time. But each scene and all the locations are amazing. So it is no burden to sit through the entire movie. The ‘noir’ type atmosphere is right on target. With constant rain and snow in just about every shot, it looks like an old 40’s melodrama, with a dash of danger thrown into the mix.
“Nightmare Alley” is a throwback to the story and style of the ‘film noir’ movies. It is beautifully done, even if the total sum is just a little less than all of it parts…
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan
Based on the novel: “Nightmare Alley” (by William Lindsay Gresham)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Edited by: Cam McLauchlin
Music by: Nathan Johnson
Distributed by: Searchlight Pictures
Release date: December 17, 2021
Length: 139 minutes
MPAA rating: R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language
Genre: Psychological thriller