Nightmare Alley is like a gigantic, room-sized painting of a film noir. Big, beautiful, and flat. It’s gorgeous to look at, and the cast is all top drawer, but the film is too long and dry as dust. You can stream it on HBO Max.
Nightmare Alley is going to get watched. I watched it. From director Guillermo del Toro and a bevy of favorite actors, it will definitely be watched and deconstructed by dozens of film lovers. It’s worth watching. You should watch it. The music is wonderful, the actors look marvelous, but thrilling it isn’t.
It’s 1941. Bradley Cooper plays Stan, a drifter who wanders into a carnival and sees a possible future for himself as a carnie. The first people he meets are Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn). These two have an elaborate system of verbal cues all worked out to make people believe Zeena can read minds and communicate with the dead. Their system is recorded in a book. Stan sees the value in that book.
Stan helps Clem (Willem Dafoe), who manages the ‘geeks.’ Geeks are men reduced to bestiality by drugs and alcohol. They bite the heads off chickens as watchers pay 25 cents to see the act. If there’s a moral to this story, it embodies itself as a geek.
Molly (Rooney Mara) works at the carnival. She does an act with electricity. Stan manages to get his hands on Pete’s book of verbal hints and convinces Molly to leave the carnival with him.
Stan builds a profitable career as a medium working night clubs and theaters with Molly working the audience and giving him cues as to what to say.
In the second half of the film, Stan and Molly are living the good life and rubbing elbows with rich people who want the assurances of a medium to ease their guilt.
One night their act is challenged by Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist and the dangerous femme fatale in the story. She will help Stan bilk her rich patients out of thousands of dollars. And lead to his downfall.
Femmes fatale are supposed to be icy b*tches, but Blanchett is so icy here she’s like a piece of painted wood.
Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen are among the actors playing the rich people Stan cheats. Stan’s interactions with the wealthy and his misadventures with the femme fatale lead to the story’s resolution. The last five seconds of the film contain the only emotional hit of the film and create a satisfyingly poetic end to the story. After 2 hours and 30 minutes of watching, you deserve that final touch.
If you watch this film, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.