Scott, are you ready to dive into your deepest nightmares?
Let us review this movie like children of the night. First, we’ll need to recap:
It’s 1939 and we’re introduced to Stan Carlisle: a drifter who wanders into a carnival looking for work. He left behind a house that he burned to the ground with a dead body inside. He quickly learns the ins-and-outs of carny life including how the “geek” is acquired and kept. He makes friends with the mentalist couple and the young, beautiful girl named Molly who takes on electric shocks.
Stan learns the tricks of the mentalist trade and asks Molly to leave the carnival with him to start their own business. They form a psychic act for the wealthy elite of New York, and during one act a woman asks Stan to guess the contents of her purse. He guesses correctly and she sets him up with rich clients who want to contact the dead. Despite being warned earlier never to use his skills in conjuring the dead, Stan agrees, and this is where the nightmare begins….
Scott, I rarely walk into a film not knowing what to expect. I thought this was a simple B-movie horror flick. I should have known better with director Guillermo del Toro at the helm and such luminaries as Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett headlining. Instead, I got a taut psychological thriller that took a long time to set up, but with an amazing pay off.
Bradley Cooper demonstrates, once again, that he is more than just a pretty face. As a producer he has backed perhaps the best film of 2021. His earnestness as Stan pulls us in. He doesn’t appear shady or insincere. He seems genuinely interested in how the carnival business operates. At one point I thought his intentions were to start up his own carnival. But in the end, he’s as dishonest as they come.
This is a star-studded production with all the players delivering their A-game. Toni Collett is the aging clairvoyant who lives with her even older husband played by David Strathairn. Stan befriends the couple and learns their mentalist act. Stan in turn seduces the young Molly and improves her “electra” act with impressive stage props. Ron Perlman (a frequent collaborator with del Toro) plays the strong man.
Stan ultimately turns all he learns against the sheriff who tries to shut the carnival down. Stan is able to use the tricks of the mentalist to convince the sheriff that his mother is watching over him. This gives the carnies enough time to hide their illegal activities – and it marks the point where Stan realizes he’s learned everything he needs to strike out on his own.
Greg, first and foremost, this is a movie about atmosphere. The look and feel of the film give it the classic “film noir” quality that we really see in the movies today. Nightmare Alley is the perfect escapist movie for anyone in the mood for a dark, gritty, creepy film experience. Years ago Roger Ebert listed ten essential characteristics of the film noir genre. Here is my paraphrasing of those telltale traits:
1. It is a “black film” of the night.
2. The movie never misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending.
3. There are dark locations of the night featuring shadows, alleys, back doors of fancy places.
4. And lots of cigarette smoking
5. Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.
6. Women who are sexy, seductive, mascara, lipstick, high heels, red dresses, elbow length gloves, mixing drinks.
7. Men wearing fedoras, suits and ties, shabby residential hotels with a neon sign blinking, lots of alcohol, cars with running boards, all-night diners.
8. Movies either shot in black and white, or feeling like they were.
9. Relationships in which love is only the final flop card in the poker game of death.
10. The most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal.
Nightmare Alley possesses most of these attributes. You can tell that Bradley Cooper and Guillermo del Toro had a great collaborative experience in crafting this film. As you mention, Greg, the casting is impressive – every one of these characters delivers a memorable performance. We have here the perfect union of atmosphere, storyline, and ensemble cast.
Let’s look at the main character, Stan, who is clearly an antihero. He’s also a sociopath. In keeping with good psychopathic antiheroes, he uses, manipulates, and kills people to achieve his aims of power and wealth. He has the heroic qualities of being likable, smart, and good looking, but underneath the veneer is a seething, ruthless ambition. This ambition is his demise, of course, and in pursuing his dreams he carves out a swath of carnage that would make Ted Bundy proud. His ambition run amok kills him, of course. We’ve seen this tale before but never, ever, has it been told this way.
Scott, I thought the ending was telegraphed from the beginning. When we see the “gimp” and hear how he’s recruited, you know that will come back in the end. Other foreshadowing includes the warning to not use the “mentalist book” or succumb to a dark demise. Still, as is often the case with good movies, it’s not the destination, but the journey that is the reward.
Unlike other films where we are witness to “con men,” the carnies in this film seem likable and even honest in their own ways. I liked all of them. Even though Collett’s character was seducing Stan, she shows a clear devotion to her husband. And, despite the fact that Stan is having sex with her, he is genuinely respectful of the older man. Stan is both protective and devoted to Molly, and yet he seems to be grooming her to run away with him. Overall, it’s everyone outside the walls of the carnival who seem insincere and evil.
This theme is played again when Stan and Molly get outside the carnival and start their own mentalist show. They are taking advantage of people – but only people who deserve their fate. But Stan can’t straddle that line forever and eventually falls victim to “the book’s” evil spell.
Scott, you mentioned that Stan is an antihero, and I heartily agree. At first I thought he might have been a fallen hero. But ultimately we see him burn his abusive father to death in his old house just before the events of the story take place. For a well-crafted antihero character, I give Stan 4 out of 5 Heroes. And, for a dark look at the good and bad of carnie life, I give Nightmare Alley 5 out of 5 Reels.
I think the film’s foreshadowing scene showing Stan burn a dead body is a “dead” giveaway that shit is gonna get real in this story. As in real nasty stuff in best film noir fashion. For its eerie atmosphere, unforgettable characters, and bloody betrayals, Nightmare Alley earns all 5 Reels out of 5. It may be the best film of 2021, in my humble opinion. And for its lead character of Stan, who ranks among the best antiheroes in film the 21st century, I award 5 out of 5 Hero points.