Film Review – Nightmare Alley (2021)
Nightmare Alley (2021)
What makes noir such a compelling film style is in its visual design and sense of desperation. Characters are lured into the dark world of crime, sex, and greed, where connivers and schemers come up with plans that always fall apart. They feel the noose of cops or criminals (sometimes both) tightening around them – desperately trying to escape the inevitable downfall. Noir is a place of gloomy shadows, smoky bars, sultry femme fatales, and fedora-wearing tough guys. What draws us to these crime films is in seeing people pushed to their limits, and how the universe punishes those who only look out for themselves.
On a visual basis, Nightmare Alley (2021) has all the trappings of a noir story. Guillermo del Toro – who adapts William Lindsay Gresham’s novel with cowriter Kim Morgan – mixes the “dark city” elements of noir with his own unique vision of fantasy and horror. The set design and art direction place us in a heightened version of 1940s America, where traveling carnivals look like a version of Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, and the art-deco designs of the city are an intricately constructed façade. From the rain-drenched back alleys to the oddities of the carnival, everything we see exists in a hyper-reality, which is probably the point. With films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Crimson Peak (2015), and The Shape of Water (2017), del Toro is a director not interested in the constraints of the real world as he is in the possibilities of the imagination.
Our protagonist is the ambitious Stan Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper. Stan is on the run for dubious reasons, finding a job as a worker for a traveling carnival. Here he meets a number of characters, including the carnival’s impresario (Willem Dafoe), a strongman (Ron Perlman), a mentalist (Toni Collette) and her husband (David Strathairn). Stan attaches himself to the mentalist, studying their act and memorizing every trick and code they use to fool the audience. The gears in Stan’s head are always moving, always trying to figure out a way to get the big score. Once he feels ready, Stan hits the road with his lover Molly (Rooney Mara) in hopes of creating their own act.
Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But in the world of noir, nothing goes smoothly. Soon greed, jealousy, and lies start piling up, forcing Stan and Molly into a corner. There are a lot of moving parts, and the editing spends too much time arranging all the pieces on the chessboard. This is the film’s biggest weakness, as it takes too long to set up the stakes. The narrative covers Stan and Molly’s relationship, their act, Stan’s shady history, a mysterious psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), and widowed business tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). Stan will go from an intimate moment with Molly, to unpacking his darkest secrets with Lilith, to his manipulation of Ezra in a continuous cycle. It makes you wonder when the guy has any time to sleep.
As Stan gains success, so too does his ego inflate, to the point that he starts believing his own deception. Cooper is very good at depicting the charm and arrogance that led Stan to fame but also laid the groundwork for his demise. Once all the dominoes begin to fall, that is when del Toro and the production really fly. Stan’s house of cards come crumbling down in dramatic fashion. Cooper translates the escalating suspense with a performance full of anxiety and paranoia. The third act operates with high tension, taking advantage of the meticulous build up with a payoff that works in visceral thrills and emotionality. The final shot is a pitch-perfect combination of craftsmanship and acting, closing with a karmic gut punch.
Above all else, Nightmare Alley is a feast for the eyes. Nearly every location, costume, and prop has a sleekness in its presentation. I was especially struck by the creation of the carnival, with its faded colors, warn out tents, and aged wood. The “fun house” looks like it came straight out of someone’s night terrors. Eyes scatter around the walls and sculls greet you with each entrance. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography captures each environment with an old school approach. Notice how scenes begin and end with an iris transition, or how slits of light will highlight an actor’s eyes to accentuate hidden motivations. All these bits create a texture that is simply fun to look at. As an audience, we often put too much focus on plot and theme as opposed to visual composition, which is the very thing that makes movies fun.
This is not the first time Gresham’s novel has been brought to the big screen. The 1947 version, directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power, is an excellent adaptation and has been embraced as a minor classic, especially among noir fans. While del Toro’s offering does not hit the same highs, it does share the same spirit. Noir isn’t about good people vs. bad people, but those who live in shades of grey. They toe the line between right and wrong, playing with fire until they eventually get burned.