Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan
Based on: William Lindsay Gresham‘s novel
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Mark Povinelli, Peter MacNeill, Holt McCallany, Jim Beaver, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, David Hewlett
Seen on: 1.2.2022

After hiding a body under the floor and burning down the house around it, Stanton (Bradley Cooper) is leaving town. He ends up with a traveling carneval troupe, and he seems made for that career, learning the tricks of the business from Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn). Stanton is ambitious, he definitely has plans to make his own way and he hopes to bring Molly (Rooney Mara), beauty of the carneval along for them. After they do make their own start, psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) shows up at one of their performances – and Stanton believes that they can build a business together.

Nightmare Alley was quite a disappointment with strange casting choices and pacing issues that completely hobble the film. I was expecting more form a del Toro film.

The film poster showing Stanton (Bradley Cooper) and below him Zeena (Toni Collette), Dr. Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and Molly (Rooney Mara).

I have not read the novel this is based on, nor have I seen the earlier adaptation of it. Being entirely unfamiliar with the material, I was not aware of how weird of a casting decision Cooper is until I realized after some time of Clem (Willem Dafoe) and Zeena referring to him as “boy” and “young buck” that he was probably supposed to be in his 20s and not nearing 50 as Cooper is. And honestly, having him be a younger character makes so much more sense in the story. Cooper does a good job with keeping the audience wondering how naive Stanton actually is, how far his calculations go. But overall, it was just a weird choice. (That Mara is still 20 years his junior doesn’t make things better.)

But even more destructive for the film was the pacing of the story. The film is way too long and it gets stuck in the set-up, when the really interesting part of the story starts only after Lilith enters the scene. By that time, though, the film has already run out of steam with the predictable telling of what lenghts Stan is willing to go to. And I ran out of sympathy for Stan even earlier.

Stanton (Bradley Cooper) sitting disheveled in a dark room.

The relationship between Lilith and Stan, then, feels hurried – despite the film’s considerable run-time – because it just starts so late in the film. And Lilith remains woefully underexplored as a character. Blanchett definitely nails the mystery part, and I was intrigued enough to want to learn more about her, but the film is not interested in her as a person, only as a mystery for Stan. (And I have to admit that I had to fight my way past the way psychotherapy is portrayed here – a discredit to the entire profession.)

The film looks lush and gorgeous, the aesthetics that are a matter of course in del Toro films are present here, too. But other than that, I just couldn’t love this film. I couldn’t even like it.

Dr. Ritter (Cate Blanchett) holding up a lit match to light Stanton's (Bradley Cooper) cigarette.

Summarizing: definitely not del Toro’s best.

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