Nightmare Alley (2021)

 

Guillermo del Toro has a rare talent for taking old stories and transforming them in new ways; he took the Creature of the Black Lagoon and made an award-winning love story out of it, called The Shape of Water. In his sinister and macabre Crimson Peak, he delves into gothic romance. And in Nightmare Alley, he retells the classic noir novel by Douglas Gresham. It closely follows the novel, but has a greater emphasis on creating a story that flows, in a slow-burn dark drama that takes one man full circle, through ambition, greed, and his downfall. It's not a happy story, but it is masterfully done.

 

On the run after his father's death (and the subsequent burning of his home), Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) stumbles into the circus, where he quickly befriends the gruff but likable Clem (William Dafoe). Seeing him hard on his luck, Clem offers him a job helping them put up and take down tents. It's not much, but it's enough that Stanton gets his foot into the circus business... and he starts looking around him for potential ways to earn some dough. A paid bath in the home of Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) introduces him to their medium act. Zeena's alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) used to have a promising career as a professional medium on the stage. He developed hundreds of codes and signals so he and his assistant could communicate with one another, and mislead people, all of which he keeps in a notebook close to his heart. But, he warns Stanton, down that road lies destruction. Stanton doesn't listen. Being a big-time con man sounds a lot better than being a small-time cheat.

 

After misfortune finds Pete dead and his book passes on to Stanton, he wants to try his hand at it -- and recruits the lovesick Molly (Rooney Mara) along for the ride. Two years later, the pair of them are hot stuff in the big city, with an act that could knock anybody dead. But one night, a mysterious woman (Cate Blanchett) challenges him in front of a packed house to tell her what's in her purse, without Molly saying a word... and that leads him down another path toward greatness... or ruination at the hands of a ruthless and powerful man who won't forget, much less forgive.

 

Having read the novel, nothing in the film surprised me, but I could see how it might an unsuspecting audience. Everything about this film is lush and atmospheric, from the run-down circus to the glamour of a 40's nightclub scene. The cast is also perfect. Cooper stepped in after Leonardo DiCaprio had to bow out of the project, and he makes for a good enigma. Stanton keeps his cards close to his chest, and it's hard to tell what's on his mind beyond his ambitions. Bradley gives a nuanced performance as someone the audience isn't sure they can trust. We also don't know what he's done, or what his intentions are, until a flashback reveals the truth of what happened on the farm that drove him to the road. A lot of it is intentionally ambiguous, and I liked that it didn't give us all the answers. Cate Blanchett is also fabulous as a Lauren Bacall-ish femme fatale, a dangerous woman who may have more on her mind than mere curiosity toward this roadside drifter. Their scenes together are full of all the right kinds of tension, and her dramatic features and sultry voice were made for this kind of film, set in this time and place.

 

Since the book had so much problematic content in it, it surprised me that this is a relatively tame R-rating. There are occasional moments of gore, and an over-abundance of unnecessary f-words, but almost no sexual content or nudity, and it's actually less offensive than the novel in one regard. Gresham (who, by the way, dedicates the novel to his wife Joy, who later divorced him due to his abuse and married C.S. Lewis) had Stanton in the novel become a 'minister of spiritualism,' complete with a backward collar, who combines religion and mysticism to con rich people out of a fortune. Here, he is just a medium on stage, and there are no religious undertones. The book is also structured around a tarot card deck, in that each chapter represents a card, and has scattered incidents that refer to the meaning of the card, but that may not have much bearing on the plot. Del Toro has taken all of that away to focus on the main story.

 

It does move slowly and there isn't much action until the second half; but it never bored me. The atmosphere, the excellent performances from all involved, the sinister streets, and the dangerousness of the man he becomes entangled with kept me hooked and wanting to see the rest of his story unfold. It has no happy ending, but it doesn't need one; the tale is of a man who participates in his own downfall, through the folly of his ambitions. And to be honest, I'd watch it again.

 

Sexual Content:

We see a man's naked backside before he steps into a tub; a married woman (not his wife) pleasures him while in the tub (brief); a man and a woman kiss, and she says she has never gone all the way with a man before; a woman wears a modest bikini for an electrocution act; a woman unbuttons her jacket to reveal a long scar on her chest (some side cleavage), the man kisses the scar and it's implied they have an affair. A man says he has done 'terrible' things to a lot of women, but not what those things are. A woman accuses a man of having an affair using foul language (you're not f--king me anymore!). A psychologist asks a man whether his father or uncle or brother did sexual things to him as a child.

 

Language:

A few abuses of Jesus' name, but a couple dozen f-words.

 

Violence:

Infrequent but gory; we see a 'savage' at the circus bite into a chicken's neck, blood running all over the place, and then savagely chew it off; a man is later shown burning headless chickens in a pit, to get rid of the evidence. A man dies from drinking wood alcohol (poison). We see a man in a flashback open a window on a cold day and steal another man's blanket, so he will freeze to death, then throwing the body into a hole in the floor and setting the house on fire. Toward the end of the movie, a man becomes violent toward a woman, so another man punches him repeatedly in the face until he's dead (we briefly see his gory face, his nose caved in), then runs over his bodyguard with the car (twice) to kill him. A woman says she wants to be reunited with her dead son, shoots her husband in the head, and turns the gun on herself; we cut away at the gunshot.

 

Other:

Alcoholism is a prevalent theme, and one man says he likes to find drunks and get them to be geeks (wild men who bite the heads off chickens) by promising them more drink. Another woman reads tarot cards on a regular basis, and is a false medium, conning people; a man cons people into thinking he can communicate with the dead. Adultery.

Charity's Novels!

Get caught up on The Tudor Throne series before the final installment this summer!