Nightmare Alley – Film Review
by Frank L
Director – Guillermo del Toro
Writers – Guillermo del Toro(screenplay by), Kim Morgan(screenplay by), William Lindsay Gresham(based on the novel by)
Stars – Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman
Nightmare Alley was a novel by Warren Lindsay Gresham, published in 1946. It had a previous adaptation to the screen shortly afterwards, where Tyrone Power played the central character, Stanton Carlisle. Here in del Toro’s iteration Bradley Cooper plays anti-hero Stan. The film begins with him burying a body, as he leaves his past behind, which he does in the shifting world of a rickety carnival. His new entourage is a collection of fraudsters, tricksters and ne’er do wells who make a living performing unlikely and dubious acts. The most blood curdling is that of a “geek”, who is an alcoholic, imprisoned and semi-starved by the owner Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe). The geek bites the heads off chickens so as to earn the next shot of alcohol which he craves! Human degradation and exploitation in spades.
This motley crew of carnival performers includes a seer Zeena (Toni Collette), her partner Pete (David Strathairn) and Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) who can conduct electricity through her body. In this eclectic company Stan and Molly combine to perfect the technique of being able to read people’s minds and to connect with the dead on the other side. They go to the big city where they start to prosper. It is there that Stan meets the coolly sophisticated psychologist, Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She has a super reclusive patient (Richard Jenkins) of unimaginable wealth obtained by illicit means who is in mourning for his dead wife and will pay anything to see her again, and so Dr Lilith makes the introduction…
Del Toro throughout creates glorious scenes from the opening puzzling burial to the shabby romance of the tatty booths at the carnival. The thirties shimmering gloss of Dr Lilith’s art deco world and the security-obsessed fortress world of the reclusive patient are perfectly rendered.
The film is, however, at times bloodthirsty and perhaps moves a little too slowly down its many twists and turns. It lasts two hours and twenty minutes which could have been easily reduced. What Del Toro does create is a feast for the eyes, which is enhanced by the acting of the star-studded cast. In this regard, Blanchett gives an all-powerful performance as Dr Lilith, the quintessential femme fatale. Del Toro allows you to enter into a world of visual delights, populated by a group of personalities each of whom is unnerving to varying degrees.