Nightmare Alley! Guillermo Del Toro Strikes Again! Movie Review

This movie has the best cast of any film this year. Yet that means nothing to me. I’ve seen movies with great casts that were disappointing (the last couple of months, that would include The Harder They Fall and House of Gucci). The cast in this delivers. I think Toni Collette is one of the Top 3 actresses working today. I’ve never seen her in a performance I didn’t love. And Bradley Cooper – early on he has a slight hick accent, sounding like David Keith (remember him?). Later in the movie, he reminded me of Clark Gable. He was simply outstanding. The rest of the cast was rounded out by the menacing Ron Pearlman (from Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy) as a carnival strongman. Rooney Mara is a carny performing a stage show in which she gets electrocuted. Colette plays the clairvoyant, who reads minds and tells fortunes (or, tricks audience members into believing she does). David Straithairn is her partner, playing the avuncular assistant who hits the sauce a bit hard. And how can you not love hearing Willem Dafoe’s voice, encouraging people to pay a quarter to watch a freak show? This cast is so great that one of my favorite character actors, Clifton Collins Jr., plays the guy running the funhouse. If you blink, you’ll miss him. In the second half of the movie, you’ll see Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins (who was also in del Toro’s The Shape of Water, here looking like Martin Mull), and Cate Blanchett as the femme fatale, who seems to be channeling a ‘40s era Joan Crawford. She’s a psychiatrist that doesn’t buy the hustling show Bradley Cooper puts on to dupe rubes into giving him money to speak to the dead.

We first see Stanton Carlisle (Cooper) burying a body and burning down a house as he leaves town in the late ‘30s. So we know he’s trouble. He stumbles across a traveling carnival show and finds his new home. 

After a brief fling with Zeena (Collette), Carlisle sets his sights on Molly (Rooney Mara, who isn’t playing the tattooed lady with a dragon on her back, but a young waif that likes chocolate). This doesn’t sit well with Bruno the Strongman (Perlman), who has made a promise to Molly’s dad to look after her.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen (also from The Shape of Water) deserves credit for shooting and creating such beautiful atmosphere (and the set designs aren’t chopped liver). When you see far off lightning, and cloudly, twilight skies…as the lights on the ferris wheel shine…you can almost smell the kettle corn and barf from the riders.

It’s interesting for us to watch as Carlisle learns the ropes from the various carnies, and becomes more involved in the activities of the carnival. 

It’s interesting for us to hear the various characters talk about how they ply their trade. Most chilling is Dafoe, who runs the freak show. He gives a monologue on how he finds his main attraction that is just jaw dropping.

It’s also interesting that Carlisle seems to care about certain people, but we know he’s a drifter that’s trouble from that opening scene. My wife and I were on the edge of our seats the whole time. 

To tell any more of the plot (which every other critic is doing), would spoil things, so I won’t. I can assure you, that in the almost two and a half hours of the run time, you’ll never be bored. Even at times where I thought the plot was pedestrian and predictable (this was a movie that originally came out in 1947), it was still very intriguing. And it’s never far from your mind that…if del Toro is involved, maybe we’re going to see a creature in a cage, or that the clairvoyant and her partner really do possess some mythical powers.

There were a few scenes that reminded me of Mamet’s House of Games, and a few scenes that reminded me of The Sting (one of those being the way scenes would sometimes fade out in black, with just a small circle around a character’s face).

Some critics are saying this is slowly paced. They’re nuts. I was glued to the screen the entire time. And this is what the experience of going to the movies is all about. See it on the big screen.

4 stars out of 5.

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