← Back to Reviews

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn.
Director: Guillermo del Toro; Screenplay: del Toro and Kim Morgan; DP: Dan Laustsen; Score: Nathan Johnson.

Going in, many know the basic premise from the 1947 film starring Tyrone Power, or from the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham on which both films are based: A down-on-his-luck wanderer comes upon a carnival, where his fascination with the life style and its offer of employment eventually leads him to apprentice with a mentalist act. Although he is disgusted by a “geek” sideshow, where a crazed booze addled individual bites the heads of live chickens, he decides to stay on and learn the secret code of the clairvoyant act.

When he accidentally causes the death of the washed up mentalist in the duo, he and its female assistant decide to leave the carny in order to stage their own mentalist nightclub act that becomes very popular. During that time the protagonist meets up with a psychologist, which leads to their partnership in scamming wealthy society members out of large sums of money. The mentalist act devolves into psychic conjuring sessions which are eventually foiled, and the fate of all the participants start to unravel.

Although beautifully staged, photographed, and well acted, there are two chief deficits in the production. First was the miscasting of Bradley Cooper in the role of Stanton Carlisle. Referred to in the story as “the kid”, Cooper, at aged 46 was too old for the part. He also is not very capable of portraying a villainous cad, or one consumed by money that Tyrone Power did in the original. Leonardo DiCaprio was initially chosen and was in negotiation for the character before he dropped out. A better choice for the role of Cooper could have been Christian Bale, although both DiCaprio and Bale are likewise too old. There are any number of up and coming stars who would have better fit the bill.

Second, during the mid 1940s the public of that time was able to believe the notion of an individual who was crazed and debased enough by alcoholism to the point where he coulddegenerate into a carnival bestial “geek” who would bite the heads off of live chickens. And further, that a person could become an alcoholic capable of that slide simply by heavy drinking. This is not the case with audiences of the 21st Century. The novel and the ‘46 film were contemporary dramas. The 2021 film is a period piece. Because we’re asked to view those anachronistic notions with contemporary sensibilities, it creates a dichotomy that makes it difficult to believe the film.

The acting was of a high level that one would expect from such a dream cast. Stand outs were Willem Dafoe as the carnival boss, Toni Collette as Zeena, the partner in the traditional mentalist act, and Richard Jenkins as the wealthy tycoon mark, Ezra Grindle. Rooney Mara struck me as the embodiment of a 1940s lass. And Collete as Zeena was convincing as a grizzled carny. Blanchett as the psychologist was a little like a cadaver with heavy makeup, but her role was partly dependent on Carlisle’s believable allure for her, which simply was not convincingly demonstrated by Cooper.

Unfortunately there was no chemistry between Cooper and any of the three female leads. So we’re not convinced by the initial Carlisle/Zeena sexual attraction. Nor do we understand the basis of the love generated between Carlisle and the carny played by Mara, to the point where she is eager to leave the carnival with Carlisle. Likewise it’s a strain to believe the relationship that quickly develops between Carlisle and the psychologist.

The cinematography was very captivating. However it’s interesting to note that the ‘46 film created the noir mood with lighting and camera angles, whereas the new film relied too much upon CGI to create the film’s dark patina. In fact there was too much use of CGI. The flames in the prologue as well as some of the special effects seemed a little transparent.

Del Toro’s direction was a good effort, but will probably not be ranked among his finest. Reportedly when he and Cooper met, there occurred not only a meeting of the minds, but rather an artistic marriage. From that point on the film was destined to be the product of that relationship-- I think to its detriment. Del Toro’s screenplay was actually a little more faithful to the book than was the ‘46 version, although both treatments of the picture made some significant departures. The current film’s long running time enabled delving into more aspects of the novel, but it also created a slow pace to the script which detracted from the story’s punch. Of the two, I prefer the ‘46 version. It was more compact and impressive.

Both version’s ending lines were similar, but neither existed in the novel. To me the actual final statement in the novel was much more on target, but the screenwriters could not resist using a larger than life show boat line.
WARNING: spoilers below
The '46 version: "Mister, I was made for it." The 2021 version: "Mister, I was born for it." The actual quote: "Of course, it's only temporary-- just until we get a real geek" is far more fateful and fitting.

Doc’s rating: 6/10