“Nightmare Alley” is Guillermo del Toro‘s slick homage to classic film noir. It’s delectable eye candy, but can a collection of old tropes entertain for two-and-a-half hours?
The movie begins entertainingly enough. A silhouetted man drags a body into the center of a room, lights the house of fire, and prompted boards a bus to nowhere. He soon finds himself wandering around a traveling circus. It’s here that a few of the lead performers take notice of his air of desperation and offer the man the job, which he accepts with a nod. We seriously begin to wonder if the man is mute when Stanton (Bradley Cooper) finally utters his first words. After that, he rarely stops talking or scheming.
Staton embeds himself amongst this collection of curious carnies. Each contains knowledge he desires, and through both friendship and furtive methods begins to collect it. It’s an intriguing beginning and like any good noir, it’s coupled with a collection of eclectic characters. Bruno (Ron Perlman) is the muscle and one of the owners of the circus. Clem (Willem Dafoe) is one of the more dastardly directors of entertainment as he’s in charge of the “geek show.” The husband and wife team of Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and mentalist Ezra (Richard Jenkins) are particularly interesting, especially as they take welcome Stanton into their home. Later in the film, Stanton’s love (lust?) and attention are divided between two intoxicating women. The vestal Molly (Rooney Mara) and the obligatory femme fatale Dr. Lilith (Cate Blanchett). It would seem all the pieces were in place for a delightfully decadent noir, and yet one key ingredient isn’t just missing, but has been painfully extracted. Intrigue.
First and foremost, this is a remake of a 1947 film of the same name. Anyone who is familiar with that movie already knows exactly where the story leads. Not only does director Guillermo del Toro fail to make any substantial changes to the plot, he also makes the odd choice to spell out any and all foreshadowing. Where a simple clue or visual nod would suffice, there are now extended discussions on the matter. Hints are so heavy-handed that clues to the plot are delivered via bludgeoning. This is in addition to the story following a very traditional noir story arc. To the seasoned audience, there are no surprises here, no twists, nothing to tease the brain with. It’s akin to Chekov pointing to the gun, describing its make, model, and unique qualities, and then making sure the audience knows if it is loaded or not.
Visually, “Nightmare Alley” is absolutely stunning. It very much deserves any cinematography nominations it gains in the next few months. But unfortunately, at 150 minutes, it’s too long for something that only pleases the eyes, even if Cate Blanchett absolutely murderers every second she’s on screen. It might be best described as a tragedy. A movie with this much combined talent and this much panache demands to be more entertaining.
Nightmare Alley (2021)