NIGHTMARE ALLEY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collett, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Tim Blake Nelson, Clifton Collins jr, Holt McCallany.

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Oscar winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (The Shape Of Water, etc) is better known for his gothic horror, but his latest film is something of a change of pace as it dips into the fertile terrain of the noir genre with all its lurid trappings. Here the horrors are of a more human nature. Nightmare Alley is based on the 1946 pulp novel by William Lindsay Gresham, which had previously been filmed in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the lead role. Del Toro’s version is not a straight remake as he and co-writer Kim Morgan tweak the material, turning it into a powerful morality tale. 

Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born, etc) is a grifter, whom we first meet when he is burying a corpse under the floorboards of a dilapidated house. He sets the whole thing on fire before leaving. He catches a bus. At the end of the line there is a carnival, run by Clem Oatley (Willem Dafoe), who also runs one of the sideshows featuring a “geek”, a half man/half beast like creature that bites the heads off chickens. Carlisle lands a job working at the carnival because “no-one cares who you are, where you came from, or what you’ve done.” He finds a home amongst the freaks, grifters, misfits and sideshow hustlers. He also learns the tricks and arts of mentalism (reading people’s minds) from Zeena (Toni Collette) and he alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). He also falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), the daughter of circus strong man Bruno (Ron Perlman), who warns him about the consequences of hurting her. 

Before long Carlisle and Molly leave behind the circus and head for New York where their sophisticated mindreading act attracts a wealthy if gullible crowd. Then Carlisle is approached by psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), and he sees an opportunity to scam her rich clients using both her contacts and intimate knowledge of their lives. But when he tries to con powerful businessman Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) he finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue, deception and murder. 

Nightmare Alley is a meticulously crafted piece of film noir, full of morally bankrupt and flawed characters and a sinuous script that moves in unexpected directions, keeping the audience off balance. The film looks good with some superb production design from Tamara Deverell that creates a nice contrast between the dark, seedy and creepy sideshow carnival and the glittering, opulent art deco environments of New York’s nightclubs and Ritter’s plush office. It has all been superbly shot by his regular cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who captures the depression era nicely, but he also gives the carnival scenes a gritty and sleazy underbelly.  

Del Toro has assembled a strong ensemble cast to bring these desperate and flawed characters to life. Cooper brings nuance and a surface charm to his performance as the twisted and amoral grifter who is blinded to his own ambition and greed. He is the typical amoral protagonist and anti-hero of the genre whose actions bring about his eventual downfall, but Cooper brings his usual charisma to the role. Blanchett brings a suitably cold demeanour and quality to her role as Ritter, the femme fatale of the piece. The cast of rogues also includes Mary Steenburgen, Peter McNeil, Tim Blake Nelson, Clifton Collins jr and Holt McCallany, who are all very good. 

This is a film of two halves, with the first half coming across as something of a cross between Tod Browning’s controversial 1937 drama Freaks and the tv series Carnivale, while the second half plays with the usual conventions of the noir genre. Del Toro imbues the material with a bleak aesthetic, and Nathan Johnson’s score adds a touch of menace and tension. 

★★★☆ 

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