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REVIEW – “Nightmare Alley”: Life’s a Circus, Until del Toro Plays Game of Risk

Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

We may still be occupying a timeline where the unique directorial genius of Guillermo Del Toro remains in good standing with fans and observers alike. For me, I’m somewhere in the middle, in that I was in a mild state of panic to arrive at the right location for which to intrinsically peer into his newest work. A genre-laden stew invoking a rather dark, slicing sense of gory macabre noir, with a slight air of opulence. But more the former as a circus loyalist embroils himself with the inner workings of high crime in Nightmare Alley.

What was once a star-making turn for Tyrone Power in a 1947 film adaptation (adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s novel), is now Bradley Cooper’s to rent, and not own, while under del Toro’s guidance. Cooper plays Stanton Carlyle, a gifted mentalist and grifter looking to keep a low profile in a small-town circus. After zigzagging hundreds of miles in running from his past, he’s just grateful for an honest, steady job. In no time flat, Stanton makes quick friends with co-workers both jaded and humble. His best connections lie with senior mentalist expert Zeena (Toni Collette), with whom he trains to refine his stage skills. To the point where he willingly runs away with electricity expert Molly (Rooney Mara). Establishing himself with dedication as a big city nightclub performer, he takes on one-on-one otherworld consultancy with socialite psychiatrist Lilith (Cate Blanchett). That much turns out to be a mistake, one of many as it turns out when the con eventually catches up with the initiator.

That pretty much spells out the persistent cadence del Toro and first-time feature writer Kim Morgan (Seance) build to. For all the effort we place on escaping past mistakes or remedying them before the consequences outweigh the blind benefits, the difficulty of eliminating them is incalculable. Thus is Stanton Carlyle, in a nutshell. An eager zest for life combined with a fine eye for the long con, oblivious toward the bigger picture. As Nightmare Alley ventures through a pair of storylines not quite in sync with one another, 1930s circus life and post-war metropolitan conquering, our playboy-in-training jumps over a few hoops to bridge that gap. Though that may be to little avail for the sake of consistency. Beyond Cooper’s very play-ball attitude toward the role itself. That much is serviceable, his screen presence proving pleasant once more following a three-year absence.

Surely, del Toro’s eye for visual flair is far from lost on its storytelling hobbles. Utilizing innocent home arson as your go-to for the high end of one’s noir-friendly color palette is a fair move. Though nothing compared to the carnival-sized challenge in both Tamara Deverell (Star Trek: Discovery) and Brandt Gordon (Shazam)’s design template, applying it without cutting any corners. In the circus realm, we see true period accuracy. Almost like one’s wandering around that midway, sans the overwhelming stench of funnel cakes. I could appreciate the kitsch as much as I almost did the gut-wrenching underbelly, creatures of the daylight representing loose showmanship.

And had we stayed in this direction, perhaps the focus would’ve been better affirmed. Seeing Stanton as a quick study, learning the ins and outs of circus life, that was the prime ticket. With Collette’s Zeena an excellent teacher, the mama bear of the group, accompanied by drunkard husband Pete (a convivial David Strathairn). That pair, alongside Molly, strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman), and ringleader Clem (Willem Dafoe), are a true misfit family of sorts, all of whom proud of their profession, hesitantly excited to welcome their newest troubled drifter into the fold. Once Stanton reaches his highest potential, that’s when any manner of forwarding momentum lost me completely.

As much as he appears poised for a major swindle with Lilith’s help, and Blanchett is brimming with seduction and ferocity throughout, his strategy felt uniquely dissociate. No more seeking cheap thrills, his mind is all on the money, targeting big-pocketed Ezra (a densely frustrating Richard Jenkins) in a soul-searching trip. How we cross that hurdle, and how del Toro desperately tries to link the chains and comes off so short, proves how jumbled up this plot turns out, with a tortuously clunky final act closing in faint resolution.

Not that it affects the director’s penchant to homage the noir subgenre in general, pre-generic terms. He and Morgan leave varying calling cards throughout, not the most substantial clues to any lingering mystery. Primarily that house fire, extensive usage of the color, and a dying old man Stanton leaves behind in an unbridled act of malice. Those small McGuffins left me wanting more, though not as a sign of hunger. More to fill missing plot holes, evidence that we’re likely deviating from the source material, overwhelmingly so.

I wanted to enjoy Nightmare Alley at this first glance. So very much. Cooper does everything he can to maintain a steady enough course to breeze through what was 150 minutes. Same for Mara and Blanchett, both quite steadfast. For the myriad stumbles del Toro is unable to overlook, it does not feel as long as was advertised, quickly breezing through two separate worlds, and sides, for a singular character, trapped in an anticlimactic limbo. Flooded by an eye-popping aesthetic guidebook emphasizing bright lights and colors, there’s much in the way of quality to warrant an immediate revisit. It’s just that shift in focus that spoils the entire bash, its laurels of promise ground to a screeching halt without warning. A genuine shame, and yet still entertaining, until it isn’t. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)

Nightmare Alley opens in theaters December 17; rated R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity, and language; 150 minutes.