The past few years, it became apparent that director/writer Guillermo del Toro can create the perfect imaginary world like no one else. From his magnificent The Shape of Water to his dark Crimson Peak and from the captivating Pan’s Labyrinth to his dazzling latest work, Nightmare Alley.
Yes, that’s right, del Toro’s newest film can be added to that list as it combines a stunning A-list cast with outstanding cinematography and a gloomy and gripping story.
There’s always something mysterious about the circus, isn’t there? That secretive vibe is exceptionally high at Clem Hoatley’s (Willem Dafoe) circus. A man that’s a beast (or is it the other way around?), sinister tarot card readings and mystic creatures, they make the circus even darker than usual.
One day Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds his way to the circus and, after having to deal with his father’s peculiar death, Stan joins Hoatley’s company. First as the errand boy but then as someone who wants to make his living performing circus tricks.
That desire is heightened when he meets clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband/mentalist Pete (David Strathairn). Stan learns the mentalist trade and elopes with the gorgeous Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to perform tricks during their show.
At first, Stan’s mentalism is innocent as a secretive language between him, and Cahill tells him precisely what he needs to know during his acts. However, once the money, fame and power rise, Stan wants more.
After encountering the enigmatic Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who almost revealed his tricks, they decide to collaborate. The dangerous Lilith provides Stan with patients’ information he can use while Stan lays out his grimmest secrets to her.
A web of secrets, intrigue and unsafe practices is being spun rapidly. The more power Stan gets, the more control he loses over his relationship with Molly, the more money he makes, the greedier he gets, and the more tricks he performs, the more people he (mis)leads. How far can Stan take it before his house of cards comes crumbling down?
You might already have heard of Nightmare Alley because the movie is based on the same-named graphic novel by William Lindsay Gresham. While the film integrates new (but also unnecessary) scenes, it’s, just like the book, about intrigues and secrets and peoples most obscure desires.
So, how do you bring a story like that perfectly to the big screen? Well, by hiring a first-rate cast and crew with a lot of passion, creativity and love for filmmaking.
While this movie is mainly about Cooper and his characters road to fame, it’s Blanchett (“Thor Ragnarok”) as Lilith who deserves all the glory. Right from the moment she appears during the second part of the movie; she makes Nightmare Alley (almost) her own.
Her fierceness, deceiving, and manipulative character but also her vulnerability, passion and sophistication spat off the screen with just one look. Her outstanding performance shows us that she’s made for Femme Fatale roles!
While Cooper (“Limitless”) doesn’t reach the same level as Blanchett, his performance is still subtle and sympathetic in the first part and dark and captivating during the second. Sadly, the other woman in Stan’s life, Molly, doesn’t come to life 100% in this movie.
While there’s nothing wrong with Mara (“Lion”) her beautiful and touching performance, it’s not as captivating as it could and should have been. Whether this was due to a miscasting of the rushed and underdeveloped storyline and the relationship between Stan and Molly, it is something we will never know.
There’s an incredible amount of talent in Nightmare Alley, and even the more ‘supporting’ roles are high-quality ones. Collette (“Knives Out”) is splendid as she heightens the mystery aspect even more as Zeena thanks to her captivating acting. Dafoe (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”) is his usual self in this movie as he gives an excellent and crazy (but in a good way) performance.
Guillermo del Toro pays tribute to the film noir genre in the best way possible, and while there’s already the conflicted and broken lead, the femme fatale and the unforeseen plot twists, he takes it even further.
In Nightmare Alley, he works again with cinematographer Dan Laustsen (“John Wick: Chapter 2″). If you’ve seen their previous collaborations, such as “The Shape of Water“ and “Crimson Peak”, then you know that you can expect a stunning visual spectacle.
This time the astonishing visuals are being taken to an even more superior level thanks to the gorgeous production design from Tamara Deverell (“Still Mine”). From the glamourous dressing rooms to the moment when Stan and Lilith meet and from the haunting cemetery scene to the engaging performances at the circus, it all comes to life perfectly!
While the movie is a bit too long (the extra added scenes don’t bring much to this film), Nightmare Alley is a must-watch! With a dark and magical book from Gresham under his arm, and a top-notch cast and crew (led by the magnificent Blanchett), del Toro brings you again a mysterious and irresistible world that you need to discover.
21st January 2022
Guillermo del Toro
THE QUICK SELL
An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.