Nightmare Alley (R13, 150mins) Directed by Guillermo Del Toro *****
Fortune did not smile on Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper).
Deciding to cut his losses, he burns down his family home and takes a bus to the end of the line. Yet it is there that he encounters a traveling carnival.
With an impending storm, they offer him money in exchange for helping them break down the rides. Then, when their “geek” gets loose, he manages to bring them together safely, earning the respect of his master Clem (Willem Dafoe) and other members of the troupe. They include tarologist and clairvoyant Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). “You can peddle for me,” she purrs, while offering him a hot bath. “You’re going to do just fine, honey. You have panache and you are pleasing to the eye.
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However, Stanton only has his eyes fixed on Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), the “electric girl” of the carnival. As he learns the ropes of mind-reading and the importance of showmanship, he’s also eager to put those skills to use to help Molly make it even more spectacular and marketable.
However, he is also appalled by the way the public harasses and “handles” her, becoming increasingly determined to find a way for the two of them to run away and start new lives. But there are those who, seemingly equally concerned with Molly’s best interests, believe that Stanton’s influence is not within them.
A reworking of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, rather than a remake of the film released the following year, alley of nightmares may at first sound like Guillermo Del Toro’s response to Tim Burton Big fish, but it’s really a two-part film (the second being closer to Christopher Nolan Prestige).
Dusty, dirty and dank backdrops are replaced by more salubrious and lush surroundings, as this haunting 1930s and 40s neo-noir convincingly charts Stanton’s rise and fall.
As you would expect from a Del Toro (The shape of water, Crimson Peak) production, the costumes are exquisite, the cinematography immersive and evocative, and the production design at times breathtaking. The sets are sometimes so detailed that you find yourself constantly scanning the frame to drink in all their delights. Likewise, Nathan Johnson (Knives out) discordant score adds to the atmosphere of unease and danger.
The screenplay, co-written by Del Toro with his new wife Kim Morgan, crackles with tension and menace, offering plenty of twists and turns, before delivering its thrilling, gripping finale and a shocking yet deeply satisfying denouement. And while the pacing might be a little slow for those used to making modern blockbuster movies, it allows the many characters to shine through and feel more than just archetypes.
That’s probably why Del Toro has pulled off what is probably one of the best ensembles in a major Hollywood movie in years. Cooper (A star is born) is remarkable as Stanton, playing to both his charismatic strengths and earth-shattering expectations as his “performer” is seduced by fame and fortune. If it wasn’t for Will Smith (in the friendliest of rewards King Richard), it was perhaps his best chance to win the Best Actor Oscar.
Support for him comes in many forms, from Dafoe’s creepy Clem to kindergarten Collette, a bright but fragile Mara, and menacing turns from Richard Jenkins and Ron Perlman. Then there’s Cate Blanchett, who almost steals the show as the femme fatale she was born to be. Lilith Ritter is a conniving, complex, but seemingly conflicted psychologist, a magnificent creation that helps drive alley of nightmares (and Stanton) to his final images.
A movie worth seeing in all its neo-noir glory on the biggest screen you can find, it’s also a movie that will make you rethink your use of the word “geek.”
After making its New Zealand debut as Auckland’s opening night film Shadow Film Festival this evening, alley of nightmares will be screened in cinemas nationwide from Thursday.