“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.”

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan, William Lindsay Gresham (based on the novel by)
Staring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchette, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins
Release Date: May 28, 1993

As per most Guillermo del Toro stories, we are entering a world of the strange and sublime. Nightmare Alley is a remake of a 1947 movie based off a 1946 book written by William Lindsay Gresham. With decades having passed since the original story was aired to the public, del Toro illuminates themes that are timeless while elevating the physical story with amazing production design and well-rounded performances.

Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a driven man with a strong tendency of lying and manipulating other’s to gain his own advantage. While wandering looking for a purpose, Carlisle finds himself in the employment of a carnival, where he learns about mentalism. A quick study of the craft, Carlisle gathers knowledge and falls in love with the world of eccentric performance, and to a lesser extend Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara).

The pair leave the carnival that is helmed by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) and go off on their own endeavor to entertain the rich and famous in glamorous ball rooms. Money is flowing well and fame is following, and Carlisle is gobbling in all up like Kirby in Super Smash. In a classic case of biting off more than he can chew, Carlisle gets swept up with a psychologist, Dr. Lilth Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Together they hatch a plan to take advantage of some wealthy patrons, including Erza Grindle (Richard Jenkins).

Erza’s wishes for clairvoyance into his past, and Carlisle is ready to oblige by whatever thieving conspiracy he can concoct. When road bumps, stop signs and pot holes begin showing up on his path to utter fame and riches, Carlisle finds himself being thrown out of his careening career car. How he bounces back and reacts to his own hubris failing him is the spotlight for Nightmare Alley’s finale.

Bradley Cooper is exceptionally good Stanton Carlisle, and Cate Blanchett is very good (per usual) as Dr. Lilith Ritter. It comes as zero shocker that some of the best scenes in all if Nightmare Alley come when the pair are sharing the screen together. Carlisle and his stubbornness and Ritter with her ego; these ethos have a mutual respect for one another, but know trust is not something they can afford.

It is the conspiracy hacked by Carlisle and Ritter that propels Nightmare Alley into another atmosphere of entertainment. Ritter, out of pure bitterness, begins sanding out a rapid ramp of decline of Carlisle’s personal and professional life. When she turns the final screw for her mental entrapment of Carlisle, there is a perverse pleasure in seeing the man plummet. As the audience we get a taste of his decline when he succumbs to drinking alcohol, and by the end we are gorging in watching what the once-renowned mentalist becomes.

Kim Morgan and Guillermo del Toro take a crack on this screenplay that is based off a William Lindsay Gresham novel. Nightmare Alley was first made into a movie in 1947 one year after the novel’s release, so a remake was begging to be made seventy-plus years later. Much like how a carnival game where you smash a hammer to measure your strength, the writing crew of this version of Nightmare Alley are bonking the audience with symbolism and metaphors.

One could agree that there is a bit too much handholding on the symbolic journey of Carlisle’s demise, yes, I would allow that argument. The lifeboat for this potential sinking detail is the performance of Cooper when the circle of The Geek is finally made. The maniac madness that is portrayed when he says he is “born” for the role of the Geek is animalistic; it is like the beast is uncaged and no longer needing to pretend.

Nightmare Alley is not a perfect film, but it is a damn good one. Of the great ensemble cast, it was surprising that Rooney Mara was the weakest of the bunch. Willem Dafoe was wonderful, and David Strathairn was also standout as Pete. The story itself moved fast, but sometimes too fast. I am not the biggest fan of someone professing their love out of nowhere and just taking off with unencumbered abandon; such a rush comes from Cahill and her love for Carlisle, and it threw me for a loop. It is the fantastical thing to do, the fairy tale story that del Toro is relatively fond of, but in a story that was more grounded (without literal monsters or fish people), it took me out of it.

With those gripes being said, the look of Nightmare Alley and the mysterious vibes it emits act like an out-of-the-way restaurant that has aromas you can’t possible resist. You have to enter in and taste the experience and the ambiance. That is what del Toro is great at.

In my personal Oscar nominations and winners, I have Nightmare Alley nominated for nine categories…but not winning a single one. The one category that I think it deserves the most praise for is Production Design, but that is going up against Dune (2021), my favorite movie of the year…so it’s an uphill battle. Come the actual award’s show, Nightmare Alley is up for four awards: Best Picture, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography.

STANKO RATING: A- (4.5/5 Stars)


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