Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn
Nightmare Alley, which is based on the book of the same name by William Lindsey Gresham,is a bit of a departure for Guillermo del Toro, while it features spiritualism and tarot readings, there’s none of the supernatural elements you’d expect from del Toro. Instead, it’s a noir film that’s about how the past haunts us, greed, and manipulation.
In 1939, Stan (Bradley Cooper) is running away from the sins of his past. He joins a travelling carnival and starts to learn the tricks of the trade, both the incredible nature of the acts and the seedy underside. He becomes infatuated with Molly (Rooney Mara) and before long they start to head off on their own, leaving the carnival life behind.
There are two parts to this film, the first side that is about Stan’s time at the carnival, and the second half that’s about Stan and Molly’s own act, that’s set two years later. There’s a hopefulness in the first half that is depleted in the second, paralleling Molly’s outlook in the film. We first meet Stan, hiding a body under the floorboards of a house and then burning it down, you know straight away that there’s something sinister about him, but he comes across as so charismatic that you can’t help but root for him, and the dark side of his character starts to really come through in the second act as you start to feel conflicted about him.
Bradley Cooper is absolutely brilliant in the film. He brings Stan to life, making him feel completely real and believable. He’s excellent as both the charming and almost childlike Stan who draws pictures for Molly about what he thinks her act should be, and also as the darker and more manipulative person that’s hiding underneath Rooney Mara is also brilliant, and you really feel her character develop as the time passes. The characters are the best thing about this film, you spend a lot of time with them, feeling them develop and change to the world around them. It’s tragic how the dark side of Stan’s nature hurts Molly.
The film is filled with extremely good performances. Willem Dafoe is giving it everything he’s got, as he does in absolutely everything. There are moments where Dafoe and Cooper are on screen together and its pure magic playing out on screen. The sets and costume design are authentic and really drag you into the spellbinding world that del Toro and Kim Morgan has created. It’s great that the film is so masterfully crafted, especially since the run time is well over two hours, and you do start to feel it towards the end, where the main point of the film is really driven home.
Everything del Toro creates is excellent and Nightmare Alley is no exception. It’s filled with memorable and striking images. The performances are as excellent as the characters are well-written. It’s a real shame that the film hasn’t done so well at the box office so far, but hopefully it will get seen by as many people as possible in the future.
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