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Nightmare Alley

Released 2021. Director: Guillermo Del Toro

THE WORLD IN WHICH NIGHTMARE ALLEY UNFOLDS IS A VISION OF theatrics and secrets through a smokescreen. Its community of cautious characters operate on survival instincts, manipulative and predatory with hidden motivations. Some have said this dark take of deception and desperation of two-and-a-half hours is too long and normally I’d agree but in this case I was hooked till the savage end.

Stan Carlisle dumps a body under the floor, burns down the house and skips town. That very night, he walks into a carnival freak show and watches a wretched creature they called the geek, described as half-man, half-beast, lurches out of his cage and bites off the neck of a chicken, to the gasp of horrified audiences.

Offered a job as a handyman, Stan quickly gains the trust of fellow carnies, learning the ropes and discovering his talent in the trickery of cold reading. We’ve seen it on TV and in movies, people with the incredible ability to read your thoughts, reach into your past and uncover private personal details. Mentalism, as it’s known, is no more than an entertainment today but in the early 1940s, as when Nightmare Alley is set, it’s a phenomenon taken rather seriously by even the educated and powerful. The unnatural ability to speak to the dead and to fathom the mysterious workings of the mind is held with less doubt than unbridled awe.

It is precisely this weakness that Stan finds a niche to exploit. A fast learner of the craft with a sharp eye for detail, Stan hones his aptitude to manipulate and take full advantage of the vulnerable who fall under his spell. His stratospheric rise from a drifter sleeping in a tent to a grifter in a tux catches the attention of Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist with the instincts to ensnare the con man in his own game.

Bradley Cooper, who appears in almost every scene, builds the character of Stan stealthily to the point that the audience feels sympathy for the devil. Stan is not a moral person and his rise to power is really a descent into a darker place where his hubris and confidence blind him to the emotional and psychological damage he’s inflicting on those who trust him. Bradley manages to portray Stan not as a loathsome villain who lets his own father die, but a flawed man undone by his own soiled ethics.

As the opportunistic and equally manipulative match to Stan, Cate Blanchett’s Lilith is a wolf who doesn’t even bother with sheep’s clothing, a man-eater not only bent on exposing the fake psychic but milking him for the unholy loot. Cate brings a chilly calculation and a sharp edge to a femme fatale role, every glance a suggestion, every inflection of her speech a possible shade.

Nightmare Alley also features Toni Collette as Zeena the clairvoyant who tries to warn Stan of his downfall, Rooney Mara as Molly whose love for Stan ends in despair, along with Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen making up an impressive line-up.

Guillermo Del Toro’s work have often dealt with a protagonist facing up to an unnatural, even metaphysical force – ghosts of dead children in The Devil’s Backbone, fairy-tale monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth, vampiric lovers in Crimson Peak and a mutant fish-man in The Shape of Water. In Nightmare Alley, Stan is both man and monster, stealing other’s trust in him and turning his illusions into a “spook show” leading to horrific murders and a suicide, and Stan’s own rapid plunge into hopelessness.

In the end, all his choices and actions lead to a devastating moment. Wanted for murder, Stan's life has unravelled spectacularly. Once suave and smooth, Stan is now a dishevelled fugitive as he comes across a carnival. And just like the first time, he's offered a job, and so the movie takes us full circle to a conclusion both tragic and inevitable. Stan’s crushing realisation of what he’s become is a nightmare for a man without redemption.

A remake of the same title from 1947, Nightmare Alley is shot in a luxurious burnished palette with splendid production deign and bolstered by strong performances, a striking and spellbinding psychological thriller of neo-noir sensibilities.


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