NIGHTMARE ALLEY gets 8.5/10 Carnival of light

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Starring Bradley Cooper, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, Richard Jenkins


Nightmare Alley is the latest settlement for the travelling caravan of curios that is famed director Guillermo Del Toro’s stunning run of cinematic achievements. Having so devastatingly reminded us the tiny gap between beauty and horror in Pan’s Labyrinth, and so effectively contrasted an actual horror with the horrors of man in The Shape of Water, Nightmare Alley (the best film of the year so far) quickly disperses our natural distaste for superficial horrors and deformities to supersede it with a most foreboding queasiness for self-promotion.

Initially we are hopeful and anticipant for Stan (Bradley Cooper), who presents himself as industrious, hard-working and resourceful to Clem (Willem Dafoe) the boss of a traveling sideshow troupe. But surrounded by the strong-men, false soothsayers, human oddities, and encased foetuses, it is Stan’s ruthless opportunism Del Toro shows to be truly hideous.

The movie, though, is a visual delight. Del Toro leaves no molecule unpainted on the screen yet no frame ever feels heavy-handed, but rather exquisitely balanced. Everything on screen feels authentic, a living (or sometimes post-living) backdrop that is as much a supporting character in Nightmare Alley as the murderer’s row of character actors it introduces throughout its 150 minute running time. Like traversing the length and straight of a carnival or show as a child, thinking you’ve experienced everything the place has to offer only to find a different sideshow you hadn’t seen yet, Nightmare Alley simply will not let you leave until you’ve witnessed all it has to show you. Liked Willem Dafoe? Here’s Richard Jenkins. Thought Toni Collette was good? Here’s Cate Blanchett.

Dafoe is perfectly authentic and menacing as ever. Richard Jenkins is superb. Collette dominates when on-screen – is there anything she can’t do? David Strathairn perhaps gives the best performance of the whole damn film. Ron Perlman is given more to do than he has in a long time, and shows he can still go. The performances of the supporting cast is Nightmare Alley’s greatest asset and a sideshow attraction to the main event, the aforementioned rise of Stan, his relationship with his partner and lover Molly (Rooney Mara), and his encounters with the mysterious Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett).

Blanchett, given width to explore the fallibilities of a strong, capable, confident, professional woman living through WWII glides from vulnerable to vindictive, from elegant to jagged and back again with glorious ease. Radiating an authentic sense of power, tempered as to not scare off the male clientele of course; she exists completely within her character, making Dr Ritter a very plausible force of nature as she quick-steps through her dicey relationship with Stan.

Cooper is a top-notch, bankable actor and is reliably solid as well. There’s nothing really wrong with his performance. It’s just that Cooper, as Zeena the Seer (Collette) advises Stan during a chat over a bathtub, is, well, quite “easy on the eye.” Even in Silver Linings Playbook where he plays a man suffering serious mental hurdles to overcome, or even A Star is Born, one never really gets the impression Cooper, a smooth-talking, very handsome, six-foot-plus man won’t eventually land on his feet.

We spend well over two hours with Stan, Del Toro revelling as he might in devilishly revealing every single one of Stan’s dark motivations, whilst whisking him through the whirlwind of the demented ethical scenarios Nightmare Alley presents. These whisks sometimes interrupt the dreamlike pacing that preceded them, leaving one wishing they had spent more time at the sideshow before it was time to go home.

But the director is always quick to grab your attention like the master showman he is, displaying even greater horrors of the human character that make the previous pale in comparison, before devastating you in typical fashion in the final act. Be sure to catch this one when it stops by a town near you – special attractions like these don’t come around too often.


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