A Grifter’s Parable – Nightmare Alley (2021)

The deadlines for the 2022 awards season were set earlier than usual and as a result, it’s been fairly slow at the beginning of the year. As a result, I have some time to finally go back to some things I saw earlier in the year and didn’t get around to covering. Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, Nightmare Alley, is a bold, dark, and enthralling tale of an ambitious carnival worker in 1940s New York. 

Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle

Stanton Carlisle doesn’t have much when we first meet him. He happens upon a local traveling carnival and lends a hand with some manual labor before ingratiating himself to the boss and working his way into more aspects of the operation. He’s clearly got a knack for being a grifter and before long he’s concocted a plan to start his own act and sets his sights on the wealthy elite of the city. As is the case most of the time with conmen, Carlisle bites off more than he can chew. 

Guillermo del Toro (middle) on location in frigid conditions with two of his stars

Guillermo del Toro is one of the finest filmmakers of his generation and Nightmare Alley is a fine showcase for the myriad of tools in his repertoire. He has long been a master of suspenseful storytelling and that’s really the focal point of this one. It’s a bit of a slow burn at 2h 30m but the screenplay by del Toro and Kim Morgan brings you along at that pace for a reason. I would liken it to a roller coaster ride. The longest part is the climb, building tension and anticipation as you get farther and farther from the ground. The real fun begins at the descent, where the twists, turns, peaks, and valleys come into play. Thrills are better appreciated when they are earned and that’s something that Morgan and del Toro understood very well as they told this story as they use the familiarity of the con-man story to set up their biggest punch at the end. 

Bradley Cooper brought just the right blend of charm and arrogance to the role

The cast is loaded with talent, but it’s the charismatic Bradley Cooper in the lead that makes the story go. It’s a well-written character arc as well as the audience’s relationship with him should change quite a bit by the end of the film. Cooper has proven himself to be a very capable leading man and he certainly commands your attention with this role. 

Cooper and Rooney Mara’s characters getting acquainted

He is flanked on either side, by Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. Mara plays Molly Cahill, a carnival performer who falls for Carlisle and is coerced into leaving with him in pursuit of their own show. Once they are out on their own, it isn’t the life she imagined and their relationship strains as Carlisle’s upward focus leaves little for her. It’s her demure presence that helps define the evolution of Carlisle’s character and Mara is very strong in the role. Blanchett plays Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychologist guided by her own ruthless ambition who wants to unmask Carlisle as a con artist but is also strangely drawn to him. Her Lilith Ritter is intoxicatingly debonair in comparison to Molly and exists as a clearly-defined polar opposite. 

Cate Blanchett and Cooper making their character introductions

The rest of the cast is packed with strong performances from Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Clifton Collins Jr, Tim Blake Nelson, and Mary Steenburgen. However, my favorite among them belongs to the venerable Richard Jenkins. He has long been a phenomenal character actor but del Toro understands how to use his skills in a showcase role. He plays the role of the eccentric and volatile, reclusive millionaire (billionaire?), Ezra Grindle, who wants to use Carlisle’s claims as a medium to contact a special woman on the other side. The stakes are raised significantly with him in the picture and Jenkins delivered with ferocity.

Richard Jenkins as Ezra Grindle

A big part of what makes this movie go is the astonishing production design by Tamara Deverell. Leaning heavily into its period features, the film takes on a special life through its visual storytelling. Luis Sequeria did a wonderful job with the costumes as well and Dan Laustsen’s cinematography captured all those stylistic choices very nicely. 

I didn’t have much in the way of expectations heading in and del Toro doesn’t disappoint but the trailer had been bored into my head repeatedly for months, so I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about going to see it. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and left the theater very happy that I made the decision to see it. It’s a very well-rounded film, as I have come to expect from del Toro, and it’s strong on a number of fronts. It’s on the bubble of Best Picture, but I can still confidently say that it’s one of the best films of the year. 

Recommendation: See it for its engaging story, stacked cast, strong performances, and excellent visual presentation.

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