Review: Nightmare Alley

The Hollywood melodramas of the late 40s and early 50s had a discomfiting story-telling quality that seems exclusive to that particular era, meaning right after a war that many deemed “good” but which nevertheless haunted those who had seen it up close. Though we tend to associate this quality with the genre dubbed “noir,” it really permeated almost every script at the time that wasn’t a comedy. As a child I would watch these movies on TV and often became truly disgusted with the human behavior on display. It was much different than my reaction to prewar melodramas, which tended to sympathize with marginalized characters regardless of any extralegal activities they carried out, probably because of the Depression, which turned almost everyone into a victim of some kind. 

Gullermo del Toro is obviously looking to recreate this disgust with Nightmare Alley, a remake of a 1947 melodrama that I haven’t seen but which I imagine delivered the queasiness very effectively. If del Toro’s version doesn’t make the same kind of impression, I suppose you could chalk it up to our 21st century jaded sensibility, not to mention a heightened degree of media literacy that allows us to evaluate texts as we absorb their stories. In any case, the main feeling I got while watching his version of Nightmare Alley wasn’t disgust at the antics on the screen but an impatience with the plot and characters, none of which were credible, and while we don’t demand movies to be realistic—for noirs, in particular, we demand the opposite—capable craft and attention to dramatic detail are necessary to make a fictional universe compelling, and the craft on display, while admirable, is only in the service of surfaces.

The story is a corker. Sometime in the 40s, a drifter named Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) gets hired as a laborer for a traveling carnival, and over time ingratiates himself with the troupe’s resident mentalist, Zeena (Toni Collette), learning the tricks of the trade through her retired, alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), plainly showing how Carlisle masters the psychological sleight-of-hand that’s vital to the illusion of claivoyance—more specifically, talking to dead people. After Pete dies under suspicious circumstances, Carlisle leaves the carnival with another, younger performer, Molly (Rooney Mara), who eventually becomes his assistant as he embarks on a successful career as a solo mentalist. However, being an in-demand entertainer isn’t enough, and when a glamorous psychologist, Dr. Ritter (Cate Blanchett), tries to expose his act and is foiled by Carlisle’s ingenuity, she offers to help him scam a millionaire (Richard Jenkins), whom Carlisle helps to communicate with his dead son, the aim being to make a killing off the millionaire. When this scheme is successful, the millionaire offers to introduce Carlisle to another rich individual who might require his services, and, working with Dr. Ritter again, the pair start a romantic relationship that seals Carlisle’s doom.

Since tragedy is built into these kinds of melodramas, the shock precipitated by the action has to be leveraged by the viewer’s identification with the protagonist, and Carlisle isn’t flamboyant enough in his expressiveness to find a purchase on our sympathies. The movie, in fact, has too many characters competing for the viewer’s emotional attention. Zeena and Molly essentially cancel each other out as love foils for Carlisle, and Dr. Ritter, as portrayed by Blanchett, is a stylized femme fatale whose personality is only as deep as her flawless complexion and immaculate coiffure. Most egregiously, the film’s thematic lynchpin, carnival owner Clem (Willem Dafoe), is such a cartoonish distillation of opportunistic evil that the movie’s implied moral lessons never have a chance to engage our understanding. In the end, I was neither disgusted by the behavior on the screen nor particularly moved by it. Just puzzled. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002).

Nightmare Alley home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 20th Century Studios

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