Nightmare Alley (2021) review – a haunting game of drifters and grifters

December 20, 2021
M.N. Miller 0
Film Reviews
3.5

Summary

Nightmare Alley is a haunting game of drifters, grifters, con men and women that never fail to entertain their audience.

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3.5

Summary

Nightmare Alley is a haunting game of drifters, grifters, con men and women that never fail to entertain their audience.

This review of the film Nightmare Alley (2021) does not contain spoilers.

Sure, Guillermo del Toro’s is the same film noir with different threads. It doesn’t help that it’s a remake of a movie from an era with the same genre’s plot tropes. I mean, can anyone not spot the obvious plot twist from the first “dame” sighting? However, that’s beside the point. Many movies play out the way you expect or are similar. It’s the execution that matters the most. 

Nightmare Alley is a remake of a 1947 noire of the same name. The story follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a poor but ambitious carny who’s trying to find a ruse that gives a much-needed windfall. He’s a master manipulator for a con-man and can read people like a mentalist. He also soaks up others’ confidence tricks like a sponge. Carlise has taken a masterclass on the matter. He joins a traveling carnival owned by the ironed-fisted Bruno (Ron Pearlman) and run by the slimy manager, Clem (a superb William Dafoe). Stanton is fascinated by the act performed by a Seer named Zeena (Toni Collette) and her “eye” Pete (David Strathairn).

Pete can read people by having a serious talent for active listening. He lays under the platform Zeena stands on with a sunroof. He writes down secrets, shows them to her, and pulls a Carnac the Magnificent. The crowd goes wild, and Carlisle is hooked. Soon, he manages to get a hold of Pete’s bible on the subject. If not used properly, a black book will lead Stanton down a dark path. He chooses that path and takes a beauty named Molly, a woman with an act that involves being hooked up to an electric chair. Soon, they cross paths with an alluring woman named Dr. Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who has them playing a dangerous grift with a Buffalo mobster (played by Richard Jenkins) that could cost them more than their fancy threads.

This noire has a performance by Bradley Cooper that shines here. Watching his arc from ambitious newcomer to seasoned confidence man is fascinating. That can be a double-edged sword in itself. Mr. del Toro’s film remakes a fascinating one when it sticks to its carny-filled short cons, mainly because the chemistry between the players involved works beautifully together. As the story evolves, it transitions into a typical conman genre that is entertaining but is easy to predict where the film is headed. And that’s something that needed to be rectified to justify its 150-minute running time.

For the plot flaws with Mr. del Toro and Kim Morgan’s script, Nightmare Alley’s stunning visually. That credit goes to long-time del Toro’s director of photography Dan Lausten (The Shape of Water). It was partially shot in the city of Buffalo, an area whose architecture and looks have been sealed in time from harsh winters and several economic droughts. From their Art Deco city hall being used for Blanchet’s office, the theatre district with that wonderful shot of Cooper walking across the street, and Karpeles Manuscript Museum was used for interior shots that need a little makeover to make you feel like you stepped back in time. Along with Brandt Gordon’s art direction and Luis Sequeira’s costume design, the whole experience takes you to another time and place.

Nightmare Alley is a solid Noire, meticulously produced, and with an enigmatic ending that will leave many audience members scratching their heads and saying, “okay.” There are obvious flaws, but the finished product is a haunting game of drifters, grifters, con men and women that never fail to entertain their audience.