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NIGHTMARE ALLEY  ****

Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara.
Thriller, US, 150 minutes, certificate 15.


Released in cinemas in the UK 21st January by Fox Searchlight.

 

Guillermo del Toro can finally tick this long-awaited adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel off his lengthy to do list, one that includes a big budget take on At the Mountains of Madness, Frankenstein and the comic book adaptation Justice League Dark among many others. Telling the tale of the rise and fall of a carny turned spiritualist, it is a tale that includes many elements that make the genres of film noir and horror such close knit companions. Greed, lust, madness and death run through this retelling, after the Tyrone Power starring 1947 adaptation, as well as the baroque, gothic stylings of countryside carnivals and art deco opulence of the pre-World War Two metropolitan cityscape.

 

Bradley Cooper takes a break from his usual leading man figures with his portrayal of Stanton Carlisle. When we first meet Stanton, he is dragging a body to a hole in the floor of a decrepit house in the middle of nowhere before setting the building alight. It is after this he comes across a travelling carnival led by Willem Dafoe’s Clem. Haunted by the spectre of the carnival’s “geek”, the emaciated figure of a run-down man paraded in front of paying audiences to bite the head of chickens, Stanton makes his way up through the hierarchy of carnival life. He soon turns his natural gift for the grift, or lying to call it plainly, to become a two-bit spiritualist with the help of the fortune telling Zeena the Seer, Toni Collete, and her alcoholic partner Pete, David Strathairn, who has literally written the book on how to fool people into believing that spirits are among us. This upwards trajectory sees Stanton leave the carnival life behind for the big city with the lovestruck Molly, but it is here after an abrasive encounter with Cate Blanchett’s sceptical Dr. Lilith Ritter that Stanton sets out on a dangerous path that leads to an inescapably dark fate.

 

Lacking the usual fantastical elements that del Toro’s films are known for, Nightmare Alley feels quite singular in the current big budget cinematic landscape. Although it could definitely be considered a remake it stands apart from the glut of reboots, requels and comic book adaptations with its patient telling of the story of a severely flawed figure. A major flop in America, where it opened the same weekend up against the double whammy of the juggernaut success of Spider-Man: No Way Home as well as the current Omicron wave, it seems that no one there was too interested in the downbeat tale of a charlatan who tells people only what they want to hear no matter the cost. Such a failure at the box office is surprising after del Toro’s box office and awards success with THE SHAPE OF WATER and the star heavy cast.

 

Designed within an inch of its life, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is certainly one of the most handsome productions to come out in the past few years. Whether it is the windswept, chilly atmosphere of the muddy carnival grounds or the impeccably styled lounges, psychiatrist offices and sanitoriums of the big city, the contrast between the two is perfectly presented. Underneath all this however is an ever-present air of doom and portent simmering away. Like the best film-noir, we are presented with the spectacle of a bad man doing bad things and somehow wanting him to escape, the tension of which is tightened to the ultimate limit before exploding into bloody violence.

Del Toro aims for a knockout gut punch with the final scene but it doesn’t quite land emotionally and with its slightly overlong running time there are flaws here and there but big budget adult filmmaking like this seems more and more of a rarity these days and should definitely be checked out and celebrated. It suggests a more cynical and even darker path for his storytelling and nicely serves as a grand introduction to film-noir for the previously uninitiated.

 

Iain MacLeod.

 

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