Director Guillermo del Toro’s new film Nightmare Alley (2021) will certainly not work for all audiences despite a stellar cast giving great performances, but those viewers with whom the film clicks with will truly enjoy the cinematic talent on display. From the immaculate production design, the neo-noir elements, and the carney plot, there was a lot to sink one’s teeth into to really get a taste for what del Toro had to offer.
Stan (Bradley Cooper) is wandering the world when he finds work as a carney. At first, he is simply hired muscle, but due to his talent with words, he soon finds himself a part of a few attractions. His ambitions seem to know no bounds as he works wonders with every person he encounters until coming across Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a therapist with her own ambitions that may rival his.
Cooper gives a tremendous lead performance. The charm he often exudes lends itself perfectly to Stan and the whimsical yarns he spins as a mentalist. If you are buying into the film, there are moments where Cooper’s character may convince you, just like the audience at his performances, that he has the true power of sight. While Cooper is incredible, I also found Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, and Richard Jenkins to be quite delightful in their smaller, supporting roles. Rooney Mara gives a solid performance, but her character feels underdeveloped, especially compared to the same character from the 1947 version of this story. A real shining performance, though, was David Strathairn as Pete. Pete takes Stan under his wing and the moments Pete gets on screen are some of the most memorable in the film.
I’m not sure if seeing the 1947 film, which is available to buy on Criterion Bluray, helped me appreciate this film. I was anticipating what would come and how del Toro would adjust or change the story. One element that I want to explore a bit is the inclusion of World War II elements that just wasn’t in the original film at all. This new film is also about half an hour long and maybe the reason that many people at my screening felt like it dragged a bit at parts. I can’t deny that there are a few moments that felt like they were included simply to pad the runtime, while some of the story beats I really loved in the original film are rushed or overlooked quite a bit. Toni Collete’s character has a much bigger role in the original film and the relationship with Stan helps to accentuate the drama. There is an element to Stan’s backstory that is shown periodically throughout this version that just isn’t a part of the story at all from 1947. Still, I found a lot of enjoyment in this film’s story.
Nightmare Alley is a visually stunning film full of shots that show off the lush sets that help to toy with the noir elements from the original in some cool ways. Cooper gives such a memorable performance that I’ll likely be thinking about it for the next several days. I had not known that there was a 1947 version of this story until recently, but I’m now a fan of both films and plan to watch them again as a double feature in the future. Nightmare Alley (2021) earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.