Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn
Runtime: 2 hrs 30 mins
Rating: M18 (Some Nudity and Violence)
Released By: Walt Disney
Opening Day: 13 January 2022
Synopsis: In NIGHTMARE ALLEY, an ambitious carny (Bradley Cooper) with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who is even more dangerous than he is.
The greatest showman, this is not.
While Guillermo del Toro’s latest film and the family friendly musical drama featuring a singing Hugh Jackman both showcase “freak” performers, the award winning director’s film adaptation of the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham does not have the bright colours and radio friendly hits. The neo noir psychological thriller film is a slow burning drama exploring the dark and shadowy world of scheming hustlers, and you can be sure there aren’t any inspiring musical numbers and happy endings.
The star studded 150 minute film opens in 1939, where we see Bradley Cooper’s Stanton “Stan” Carlisle coming to terms with an act that will haunt him forever. He finds his way to a carnival, where he witnesses a man who have sunk to the level of performing as a freak (he devours live chickens!). Soon, he finds a job and befriends other characters like a mind reader and her alcoholic husband (the ever perfect Toni Collette and ever reliable David Strathairn), a woman whose body can conduct electricity (the underrated Rooney Mara) and a strong man (Ron Perlman putting his grunts to good use). Hovering over these personalities is Clem, the scowling owner of the carnival that is portrayed effortlessly by Willem Dafoe.
After a series of events, Stan leaves the carnival with Molly, the human conductor he had fallen in love with. It is 1941, and we find ourselves in a classy New York nightclub where the disgustingly rich upper class watch Stan and Molly perform psychic acts. Enter a scarily cold psychologist Dr Lilith Ritter (this role belongs to no one except Cate Blanchett) and an unscrupulous but wealthy industrialist (Richard Jenkins in a chilling role), and the story takes another turn to involve con jobs and terrible pasts.
Fans of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017) would be pleased to know that this movie showcases del Toro’s ability to bring beauty to something which is grotesque. There is poetry in the scenes, despite the ugliness (both literally and figuratively) the characters and situations. Can we agree with the cruelty displayed by Dafoe’s Clem, given that he is providing employment to the freaks? Is Cooper’s Stan someone we can empathise with, considering all the con jobs he has pulled off? Do we feel sympathise with Blanchett’s Dr Lilith and her manipulative ways, after knowing that she is a victim of circumstances? Despite the film’s long runtime, you are engaged throughout as the story uncovers more and more layers about the characters and their motivations.
The film is also a perfect opportunity for del Toro and his team to bring to screen some of the most visually luscious movie sets we’ve seen. The first half of the film shows the earnest underbellies of the perpetually muddy carnival, while the second half contrasts it with the hypocritical glitz and glamour of the upper class. Then there are the final sequences where we are transported to the distressingly cold streets where doom and gloom are loitering around the corner. Coupled with the ensemble cast’s commendable performances, the cinematography and production values luminates this film.
(Impressive performances and luscious production values make this grim thriller a worthy watch)
Review by John Li