Written by: Guillermo del Toro & Kim Morgan
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins
Deceiving others can produce a quick buck when used in moderation but as history has taught us, eventually the truth will be revealed and it better not be with the wrong person. This little dive into the depravity and deception makes for quite the ride that feels familiar, but of course, comes with the rich presentation of a master filmmaker.
Showing up for work as a carny, Stan (Bradley Cooper) learns the skill of reading individuals and pulls off a clairvoyant act. Seemingly ruffling feathers with anyone he meets, he establishes an act that puts him in the circles of the very rich of New York City. With the promise to make more money as he goes along, he further digs himself a hole that becomes increasingly difficult to dig out of.
Following the plot of Nightmare Alley gives the indication of it being similar to other stories told before about con men getting one over on others. It’s only ever going to end in one way, but the ride is what draws us into this story and the deliciously evil path set before the characters of this film and their willingness to follow it make for such an entertaining viewing experience. This film definitely makes the journey worth it and much of it comes from trying to figure out Stan as a character and what the man truly wants to achieve in life.
Opening the feature with him not saying a word for a concerning amount of time, the mystery surrounding Stan along with the various carnies he begins to interact with comes as quite an intriguing combination of figures. Whether or not he will associate with them and find a way to find success will dictate whether he will thrive or become the next geek. With the first half of the feature taking place at the carnival, Stan essentially becomes the blank canvas for the other characters to surround and paint the picture of what it meant to work as a carny in this time. Specializing in a skill and providing a sense of entertainment. It immerses the audience into the world but once Stan begins to make his own decisions, we see his true personality stand out and the more despicable his behavior proves to be.
As with any Guillermo Del Toro film, the crafts involved were always going to dazzle with this feature being no exception. From the production design to the stunning cinematography, the technical elements of this feature draw us into the alluring trap of following Stan through this devious journey of his. They provide several moments that stay with you far after the final credits roll like when Stan searches for the geek through the madhouse or his performances as the clairvoyant in front of the social elites. They all accentuate what makes this such a journey for Stan in a terrific manner.
With Bradley Cooper giving one of his stronger performances, especially when you get to the final scene of the film, the supporting characters really get the chance to shine here as they react and bounce off everything Cooper does as Stan. The one who definitely stands out is the terrifyingly alluring performance put on by Cate Blanchett. An absolute powerhouse in everything she does but the level of evil seduction she conjures through this role changes the dynamic of the feature as her character Ritter and Stan have their own battle of the wits along with the attraction they have for each other. She essentially changes the entire trajectory of the narrative the second she appears and makes one thing perfectly clear, no one here can be considered a good person. Other supporting actors like Richard Jenkins, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, and others each leave their mark but only continue to add to the depravity of this world Stan finds a way to exploit. After all, no one can be considered good when they operate within a system utilizing geeks as a form of entertainment and horror.
With this being Guillermo Del Toro’s return to feature filmmaking after taking home a handful of Academy Awards he definitely got a blank check to do whatever he wanted. While this does not match up to his great works focusing on literal monsters, he ensures to have them all in human form in Nightmare Alley. While missing his typical fantastical storytelling, the man knows how to piece together a feature film and he certainly makes a meal out of this story.
Nothing groundbreaking but thoroughly entertaining, Nightmare Alley brings us to the bottom of the hole Stan keeps digging. The only question that remains is whether or not he will stop before he gets himself in an inescapable position. Entertainment comes in bundles here as it’s never a bad time for us to receive a new Del Toro feature. He certainly does not disappoint.