As you get to know me as a critic/person, I can be a little cynical about the modern state of movies. With unnecessary sequels, TV show tie-ins, rehashes, and member berries running rampant, it’s rare that I can get truly surprised or invigorated about new movies hitting the theaters.
THEN, every once in a while, the movie Gods wink instead of scream and gift me something…dark…gritty…and a reboot of a movie from the 40’s that I had never heard of. And in this case, that twisted maniac Del Toro delivered BIG with Nightmare Alley. Going into this movie I thought it was an actual factual original work, and then came to find out it’s a remake of a cult classic from ’47 that was based on a book. THAT BEING SAID, I still give this movie a HUGE pass for being a remake, and it will likely be on my best of 2021/2022 lists depending on release date vs. review date.
I’m going to try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, however with the press going off as it has been about this movie over the last few months there are some brief ideas that most people should know by now. Stanton Carlisle is not a guy who you would trust much. Good looking in the traditional sense, it’s clear that he always has something up his sleeve and a buck to be made. Leaving his family home, he gets involved with a traveling circus where he homes his trickery. After he learns what he needs to, he absconds with the Electrical Woman Molly (Rooney Mara) and heads off to the big city.
Honestly, that’s as much as I want to get into. What’s funny is that this may as well be called “Subversion: The Movie”. It has sooo many breadcrumbs that turn into red herrings that the actual plot is “fairly” straightforward. Del Toro has a bunch of his usual tricks employed here, but it ends being closer to an Early Nolan movie than some sort of big revealing loop. Who’s in control, how far you’d be willing to lie to yourself, and what sort of deals you would be willing to sell your soul for to play much more important than some *WHOLE AUDIENCE GASPS* reaction, and I was here for it!
Overall the cast here plays out pretty well. Cooper has enough smarm/confidence, Rooney Mara has enough wide-eyed idealism with characters quirks to make her fleshed out, and the carnies are all fantastic in their own right (more on that later). I would agree with most critics who say Cate Blanchett steals the show, however, it’s like saying that a star quarterback has a better showing than a 2nd string lineman. She consistently puts out incredible work, so it should be no surprise that she’s on fire here.
Del Toro always seems to get great performances from his tertiary characters, and Nightmare Alley is no different. Willem Dafoe crushes it as the smug ring-leader of the freak show, Toni Collette and David Strathairn do great work as a sad but loving couple who the years have not been particularly kind to, and familiar collaborator Richard Jenkins has a great arc as well. I wish I could go further, again I would just recommend seeing it yourself.
Full disclosure: While I LIKE del Toro, I am traditionally have not been his biggest STAN (as “the children’s” like to say). I think he has his vision and mood piece, but maybe it’s just not been the plots/stories that drew me in. All that to say is that Nightmare Alley made a believer out of me. His noir aesthetic is so well done here, and every scene is light and edited beautifully. It feels like every single place they visit either has rain or snow coming down, and it sets the scene with the appropriate dread. I heard rumors of a black and white version coming down the pipe, and man that would be awesome to see.
As you can PROBABLY tell, this was my kind of movie. Dark, brooding, some twists and maybe a few turns, plus it’s just a feast to look at and listen to. I almost guarantee this will be on some streaming services in the next few months, and I think if you like these sort of slower adult-themed movies this will be right up your alley!
RATING: 4/5 +
Notes – This is where I usually put my odds and ends, but due to the holidays, it’s been AWHILE since I’ve seen this and honestly I’ve just forgotten what all else I may have wanted to say.