Director: Guillermo del Toro (USA, Mexico, Canada). Year of Release: 2021
An old house, 1939. An unseen figure drags a corpse-shaped bag along a wooden floor. He pushes the bag through a hole beneath the floorboards, and lights a cigarette. He flicks the match onto the floor and the house goes up in flames. We see a man leaving the house wearing an Indiana Jones fedora and designer stubble. He gets on a bus, falls asleep and wakes up at the terminus.
Getting off the bus, he follows a dwarf to the nearest circus, as you do. This is one of those circuses which specializes in freak shows – all strong men and contortionists, with the occasional pickled foetus on the way. He wanders into a tent whose inhabitants stare down at a “geek” – a hairy half-man, half-animal with more than a hint of savagery. Luckily, today is feeding day. The ringmaster throws a live chicken down to the geek, who bites off its head in a pool of blood.
The man introduces himself as Stan (short for Stanton). He gets a job for the day for which he is paid $1 (minus a quarter for sneaking into the Geek show without paying). After the Geek escapes and Stan helps catch him, the job becomes more permanent. Although he’s basically an odd-job man, he spends an increasing amount of time with the “Mentalist” Zeena, whose husband Pete has become a little too fond of booze to feed her the clues she needs for her mind reading act.
Stan woos Molly – a seemingly naive young woman who uses her body to conduct electricity by linking up to a sort of Tesla coil. It’s hard to tell whether he actually likes Molly, or is just seducing her because he can. Either way, the two follow the example of John Major by running away from the circus and land up 2 years later on the high-class cabaret circuit.
In the huge nightclubs, Stan is performing essentially the same tricks that he did in the circus, but to a better dressed, wealthier audience. It is here that he meets Lilith, a psychiatrist with privileged access to her clients’ inner thoughts. With Lilith’s recordings of her very rich patients, and Stan’s showmanship, there’s a killing to be made here.
Let’s start with the positives. If Nightmare Alley doesn’t sweep up the Oscars for Cinematography and Set Design (is there an Oscar for Set Design?), director Guillermo del Toro will have every right to be peeved. The set looks sumptuous from beginning to end, whether we’re in a fleapit circus or an opulent mansion full of Art Deco. We may be straying into film noir territory, but never has a film noir been better lit. And the fact that many scenes are lightly dusted with snow adds an extra elegance.
Secondly, there’s enough sideshow here to keep us involved, particularly in the first half of the film. The acting is top-notch . There are few promising newcomers here, instead the film contains talent that has proved itself many times before. For a large amount of time, you’re sitting in the cinema, thinking this film isn’t a bad film at all. But when the second hour passes, and there’s no obvious sign of it coming to an end, you (or rather I), start to ask, just what is the point in all this?
Look, films don’t have to be about anything – they can just be interesting stories about other times and places. And yet, the characters are – with the possible exception of Molly – just so unlikeable that it’s hard to feel any sympathy for them. Apparently Bradley Cooper, with his barrel chest and moustache made for twirling does it for some people, but his Stan is so amoral, and one-dimensional, that I started finding him slightly interesting, but couldn’t be moved when things stop going his way.
Maybe we’re supposed to be particularly impressed by the mentalists’ exceptional deception. Well, maybe, but I remember performing exactly the same trick with my father at the Blackpool Methodist Guest House. I was about 7 years old. It’s a neat trick when you first encounter it, but once you know how it’s done (and this film introduces a couple of unnecessary complications), the novelty fades very quickly.
Nightmare Alley is a very impressive film, and one of the most stylish that I’ve seen in a while. But the style isn’t accompanied by much equivalent substance. And there is a certain lack of soul. By the end, you are enjoying the pretty pictures which are flashing in front of your head, but are not really moved by anything that you see.
So, yes, it is worth going to see Nightmare Alley, but do limit your expectations. There is a tendency from reviewers who have seen the Tyrone Powers original to express disappointment. I think I see where they’re coming from. There seems to be a film trying to burst out that is quite extraordinary. The new version looks astounding, but you feel that it does have a lot more to say than it is actually able to articulate.