Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A Stroll Down Nightmare Alley: The Deceiver Deceived

Director Guillermo del Toro is in love with the fantastic and the macabre. Sometimes his grotesque figures turn out to be benign, even heroic, as is the case with his sexy aqua-man in the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water. In the magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth, a girl in retreat from the brutality of everyday life finds solace in the make-believe world of magical creatures. In his new Nightmare Alley (based on a 1946 novel that was previously filmed in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the central role), del Toro turns to film noir stylistics to explore the surreal lives of carnival folk. One big difference from his previous work: in this film the magical tricks and stunts all are given logical explanations. Though they seem eerily supernatural, they’re in fact 100% bogus.  Each is cleverly designed to fake out the credulous, all the better for unscrupulous men (and women) to exploit their “marks.”

 The setting for most of Nightmare Alley (probably too much, given the film’s excessive length), is a seedy traveling carnival, circa 1940. It’s the depths of winter: snow, slush, and torrential rain are constant reminders that the natural world can be harsh indeed. Into a tumble-down tent stumbles Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man who’s clearly seen better days. He’s desperate for work and a sense of belonging. Soon he’s part of a team led by the carnival’s owner, played by the always sinister Willem Dafoe. Among Stan’s new comrades are midgets, fortune-tellers, a pretty young woman who conducts electricity through her body, assorted freaks, and (literally) geeks. (If you don’t know the grotesque original meaning of that currently popular term, you’ll certainly learn it here.)

 Though the season remains winter, matters considerably heat up when Stan falls for Molly, the electric girl (Rooney Mara), and takes the tricks he’s learned as a carny into the wider world. Quickly he evolves into “The Great Stanton,” charming uptown folks with a flashy mentalist act in which he divulges secrets and facilitates conversations with the dead. The point seems to be that credulity knows no boundaries of class or economic status. Wealthy, powerful men approach Stan, desperate to initiate contact with lost loved ones. Stan is, of course, more than happy to oblige, though the results are not quite what he anticipates. I will not go into the role played here by the protean Cate Blanchett (so very different from the flashy TV host she plays in the current Don’t Look Up.), except to say that it reinforces the movie’s overall theme: that no one can really be trusted. It should not surprise us that when the film’s ending finally rolls around, Stan’s essentially back to where he started, with one grim difference. At least he’s wised up enough to know where he stands in the carny hierarchy . . . and in the universe.

 Nightmare Alley is effective, if you know in advance you’re in for a long sit. In addition to Bradley Cooper (who dynamically conveys his character’s weaknesses as well as his strengths), the carnival folk include such reliable presences as Toni Collette (as Zeena the Seer), David Strathairn (as her hapless husband Pete), and Ron Perlman (as Molly’s hulking guardian figure). The world of the rich is inhabited by Mary Steenburgen (in a poignant and ultimately shocking small role) and an almost-unrecognizable Richard Jenkins, a del Toro favorite. Visually, the seedy carnival world, juxtaposed with the art deco elegance of Cate Blanchett’s office, is not easily forgotten. It’s the stuff that can haunt your dreams. 


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