Sunday, January 30, 2022

Nightmare Alley


1939. Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) buries a body under his house’s wooden floor before burning it down and running away to join a circus, where he is taken in as an overall assistant by its owner Clem (Willem Dafoe). There he meets clairvoyant couple Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn) who take him in and teach him a thing or two about their tricks. He also meets and begins a relationship with Mary Cahill (Rooney Mara), one of the performers who plays around with electricity for her act. The two decide to run away to New York where they begin a successful career as a psychic duo for Buffalo’s elite. There he crosses paths with psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who, in a ploy to expose him as a fraud, gets entangled in his web of lies. An affair soon begins, but their partnership crosses over to professional territory as she plays along as a willing accomplice for him to dupe her well-off clientele.

Del Toro does not disappoint, now does he? Despite Nightmare Alley not containing any of the supernatural aspects his films tend to exploit as far as storyline is concerned, this one comes across as perhaps one of the bleakest among the entries in his filmography. There is just this gloomy vibe haunting the movie from start to finish, maybe due to the material being part of the neo noir genre. Too bad the film ran out of steam in the awards circuit, but this is still a slow burn thriller that any del Toro fan will surely enjoy.

Cooper is definitely the star of the show and does a great job in carrying the entire film. His character’s journey coming full circle is credible because of his solid portrayal. You really witness his evolution from beginning to end, which lends more poetic justice to that rather ironic ending. The supporting ensemble also offer some memorable performances from Mara to Collette, but perhaps it is Blanchett who the audience will remember most despite entering the picture late in the game thanks to her strong performance and coupled with the fact that she does look and sound like she came straight out of the 1940’s.

The development and resolution of Carlisle’s story arc also deserves some applause. This hasn’t always been del Toro’s strongest suit, but this one just blends the literal and the metaphorical so well when you put two and two together, although some might argue that the script is being a bit too obvious with regards to such outcome. It just makes you reflect and scour the depths of the internet after you’ve seen the film, just to confirm if your interpretation is shared by many others.

In this case, the consensus is that Carlisle has been a geek all along, perhaps not in the most literal sense that one would expect as is shown in the fate of the literal geeks at the carnival. His case is more of a metaphorical rendition, with life being the circus and Ritter being the manipulative owner. The impact is further strengthened by Carlisle believing that he is the one pulling the strings, until he finds himself back where he started realizing that he is the puppet all along. The exposition is tragic alright, but oh so perfect.

Perhaps the only downside is that it that this film runs over two hours, and the plot development is rather slow. A person with a short attention span will easily get bored after the first act. However, the suspense builds up slowly and promises a rousing culmination enough to give you goosebumps while scratching your head because there are some scenes and motivations that are just hard to understand at first watch. Nevertheless, it is that kind of cinematic offering that rewards its most patient and observant viewers.

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