NIGHTMARE ALLEY (Movie Review)

Bradley Cooper delivers a compelling turn in Guillermo del Toro’s mesmerizing noir NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and strong language)
Released: December 17, 2021
Runtime: 150 minutes
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany

For nearly two-thirds of Nightmare Alley, I basically didn’t care what would happen to any of these characters. The funny part of that, though, is that I didn’t care that I didn’t care. 

The characters themselves are so compelling, as is the bizarre, gothic-noir world that Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro has created for them, that the lack of narrative momentum didn’t blunt my fascination with what was unfolding before me, nor did it halt this dark morality tale’s beguiling pull.

It all pays off, too, with a final act that’s propelled by a sudden jolt of high stakes (nay, the highest), leading to an indelible final moment that is not only haunting but one that may be the finest of Bradley Cooper’s acting career.

With films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro has made a career out of delving into the supernatural and, more specifically, the macabre, with equal parts dread, empathy, and affection. 

Here, in his first foray into a world strictly confined to the natural, he chooses to explore the kinds of scheisters who use and sell the supernatural as a grift — and where better to do that than in the bizarre world of the traveling Carnivale from nearly 100 years ago?

Cooper stars as Stanton Carlisle, a mysterious stranger on the run who finds the perfect place to lay low: in a carnival, as a carny. This isn’t some quaint roadshow circus, mind you. Run by the perfectly-cast Willem Dafoe, it specializes in freak shows from the strange and fantastical to the grotesque. 

The film’s first hour has little narrative focus, but the drive comes from Stanton’s fascination with the carnival’s Seer, a woman named Zeena (Toni Collette), and her partner Pete (David Strathairn). The pair have mastered an act that dupes innocent, impressionable people into believing that she can read their minds and, more dramatically, see around them into the spirit world. Stanton becomes their helper and then their protégé, learning the tricks of their trade.

Meanwhile, he begins to fall in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), a young woman with a particularly electrifying act of her own. As the two grow close, Stanton incorporates himself into her act, too, as a means for practicing his newfound Mentalist skills and testing their limits.

The second half of the film parlays that setup into a whole new territory, one in which Cate Blanchett plays Dr. Lilith Ritter, a femme fatale psychologist with suspect motives. Does she intend to help Stanton reach new heights or deviously exploit him?

As Stanton pushes past the boundaries of his already-sketchy professional ethics, the consequences unravel well beyond his ability to predict or control. And at that point, to whatever degree del Toro’s movie had been flirting around the margins of living up to its title, it finally and brutally embraces it.

Though the pace requires some patience, the craft is hypnotizing. From an arresting start to a gut-punch of a finish, Del Toro is in top form as a visual artist, conjuring a stylish atmosphere in pockets of American society that range from the gypsodic fringe to the most lavish and elite. (Lilith’s office alone is a staggering display of art deco detail and symmetry.)

The ensemble (which includes a number of veteran del Toro players) is also uniformly mesmerizing. Blanchett in particular has some delicious fun, but it’s Cooper who impresses most. 

For an actor who spent much of his career trying too hard to emulate his heroes (De Niro, Brando, et. al.), Bradley Cooper elevated his talents and disciplines in A Star is Born (which he also directed) to something personal and vulnerable. That continues here with more daring work in a performance that’s internalized yet palpable, simmering at a damaged Freudian level rather than a conscious, textual one. 

And that last shot. Wow. My goodness. It’s a defining moment for an actor who’s completely come into his own.

Nightmare Alley is a movie that creeps up on you. It explores the dark corners of human nature, and the desperate lengths people will go to in order to satisfy their ambitions and desires or assuage their guilt or grief.

Even so, it’s refreshing to see Cinema that’s not pretentiously trying to say something but, simply, be something.

And woooo boy, Nightmare Alley is something.

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