Nightmare Alley

Year: 2021
Studio: Searchlight Pictures
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro/Kim Morgan
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, David Strathairn, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Tim Blake Nelson

On paper I should be the biggest fan of Guillermo Del Toro's ever. He's all about monsters and horror motifs, he's a very talented visualist and he deals with themes like creatures and social isolation somewhat like Tim Burton always does.

But try as I might I've just never really loved any of his movies. Pacific Rim was a great big screen spectacle, but aside from some of the body horror elements it could have been a Michael Bay film. And everything else has left me either completely cold and disappointed (Crimson Peak) or just a bit underwhelmed (The Shape of Water).

Similarly, I wanted to like Nightmare Alley because it had the makings of a rich movie experience. The travelling carnivals of the interwar years in America are great fodder for imaginative ideas and visuals, and I looked forward to immersing myself in it so deeply I could almost smell the popcorn and manure.

Del Toro and his cast do a perfectly fine job of that in the first half of the film – the second half is set in the gilded halls of big city theatres and offices, which he also mounts with complete creative adequacy. Maybe it was just the people in it and what they were doing and concerned about that failed to grip me.

For starters, Bradley Cooper as hero/antihero Stan is a complete non starter as a character. He blows in to the story with no apparent aim or aspiration, suddenly finds himself at home among the spruikers and ringleader types, out of seemingly nowhere has great aims for an act nobody's ever before seen, and is soon swindling high society out of their riches with his showmanship and trickery, most assuredly a thief and a villain.

Where did he become one? There was no money, so it didn't seem to be temptation for something bigger. He falls in love with the girl behind one of the acts, Molly (Rooney Mara) and suddenly wants to take her away and do their own fake clairvoyant show, even though by that stage everyone considers him family.

I just never saw any rhyme or reason behind his actions and motivations. It emerges he's an expert at reading people, giving him skills as a fake psychic, but it's not a strong enough characterisation until much later in the movie - too late to assert itself enough to feel like you know who he is.

In any event, he convinces Molly to go to the big city where they start putting on their show and they're a great success. It's during a performance that Stan's foil reveals herself, slinky psychologist Ritter (Cate Blanchett). After Stan beats her at her own game when she tries to expose his fakery, a powerful client of hers who saw the show asks her to set up a private consultation with Stan so the man and his wife can communicate with their dead son.

Stan and Ritter hatch a plan – she'll reveal secrets about the city's elite from her sessions with them that makes it seem like Stan really is psychic, they'll rake in the resulting cash from rich suckers and they'll share the spoils.

An even bigger mark enters the picture in the form of industrialist Grindle (Richard Jenkins), and the stakes are higher than ever, with Molly on the verge of bolting and Stan trying to hold everything together, wondering who's going to double cross him next.

The elements are all there – the acting is top notch from some exceptional performers, including two Australian greats in Toni Collette and Cate Blanchett. It's expertly designed, staged and shot. The cinematography is rich and textured, the editing enabling a very assured rhythm.

Del Toro is such a good filmmaker he also manages the tone perfectly according to what he wants to film to be, with very distinctive and identifiable genre concepts like pulp and noir.

All of which makes it really hard to put my finger on exactly why it missed the mark. Maybe it really was a brilliant example of the genre – even Del Toro's personal genre where horror and noir are hybridised – and it's just not my cup of tea. I just found the characters very hard to get a bead on, it was overlong and it meandered through a few too many left turns to get to its destination. Like all Del Toro's work it's a labour of love I just couldn't love.

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