Skip to main content

You’re nothing but an Okie with straight teeth.

Nightmare Alley

(SPOILERS) It’s no compliment when you can predict the final scene of a movie simply by watching the first few minutes (and no, I hadn’t previously seen the 1947 version). Particularly when the cumulative effect is of a Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt episode but five times the length, and thus distended beyond all bounds of reason. While it’s true that Nightmare Alley has almost no bona fide supernatural elements, it plays in the much same way as those anthology tales, albeit crawling rather than propelling itself towards the final “twist” moment.

Lilith: The thing you need to know is, if you displease the right people, the world closes in on you very, very fast.

I’ve seen this referenced as a perfect ending, in terms of neatly tying up the protagonist’s trajectory, but such sense of “perfection” is only conveyed if the telling avoids a laborious fait accompli (it may read differently in William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. I hope so). Guillermo del Toro entirely fails in this department. Indeed, behind the showy art direction – see also The Shape of Water – a weary familiarity quickly presents itself. These overblown neo-noir period pictures all begin to look and sound very similar after a spell – Shutter Island, Angel Heart – owing to their leads’ faux-period descents into hell of one description or other.

Perhaps that’s their attraction: confessionals borne of their makers’ Faustian pact (notably, Leo was considering the movie – superficially strange, as it’s so thematically similar to Shutter Island. On which subject, Scorsese raved over Nightmare Alley, averring to its fidelity to “the animating spirit of film noir”). Mostly, though, I’m baffled that del Toro wanted to make this. Of course, that’s nothing new, as I’m baffled that he wanted to make Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak. They’re overblown, undernourished geek doodles that in no way justify the time and effort a talented filmmaker with studios as his oyster should be indulging. He’s fallen a long way since his creative peak of Pan’s Labyrinth; the more tools he has to play with, the less interesting his pictures become.

Del Toro said he only later saw the earlier movie, have initially been passed the novel by Ron Pearlman. I’m presuming it remained an influence, though, as he appears to have decided the only way to face down the 1947 flick was to make this both more elaborate (not too difficult) and less forgiving (and thus more authentic to the source material). Unfortunately, very little in the way of this ornamentation is necessary, and much of it actually gets in the way of sureness of telling.

Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) burns down a house – turns out the body inside was dad’s, whom he left to freeze to death after stealing his blanket – and joins the carnival. He learns the tricks of a clairvoyant act and leaves to set up on his own, in partnership with Electric Girl Molly (Rooney Mara). When he subsequently meets shrink Lilith (Cate Blanchett), the temptation to offer a verboten “spook show” to the wealthy bereaved of Buffalo gets the better of him, and his carefully nurtured façade begins to disintegrate.

Cooper is introduced with an extravagant Indiana Jones audition silhouette but proceeds to prove a bum choice. Not because he isn’t a very good actor, but because you need someone you’re willing to take this journey with, even as everything they do and are is entirely unsympathetic. Bradley’s unable to convey that, such that the latter section of the movie comprises empty thrills; you may be caught up in the mechanics of a scene, but at best, you’re only concerned for Molly’s welfare.

Mostly, though, the failures are in del Toro’s over-deliberate, over-telegraphed approach to the storytelling; he allows himself too much time and indulgence and feels no onus to make hard choices that would help translate the screenplay. Every meal doesn’t need three courses, but Guillermo seems to have lost sight of that. The 1947 film wasn’t exactly slim at 110 minutes, but this Nightmare Alley is positively overstuffed at Creosote-like 150.

If del Toro had kept the movie punchy, pulpy and to the point, he might have made it passable as an offbeat detour. Instead, he overburdens Nightmare Alley with portentous meaning, and the result becomes profoundly hollow. There is suspense, but it’s very didactic, literal kind of suspense; there’s no pleasure in seeing the obvious unfold, and it does so at such a stately place, you’d think it was a Frank Darabont movie.

Stan: You’ve got the smoother lies, but you run a racket, the same as me.

To be honest, I had similar problems with the obviousness of the twist in Shutter Island (also very apparent upfront); Nightmare Alley ends up revolving around its destination, rather than relishing the journey itself, and del Toro underlines every element accordingly, to the point of tedium. At the outset, Stan shows sympathy for the geek (“Pour soul”), because he will become the geek. He never drinks (yet, but oh boy, he will). Never do a spook show (so he will do one, then two). He’s haunted by key memories that attest to the essential corruption of his soul (we’re familiar with such flashes from other, similar fare). The set-up of his using the wood alcohol to poison Peter (and so peruse his book of secrets) is emblematic of del Toro’s inability to refrain from foregrounding every plot point. Only the reveal of Lilith’s duplicity isn’t over-signposted, but such femme-fatale form is only to be expected anyway, as part of noir tradition (her gloating, consumed with her own cleverness, while Stan still poses a physical threat is pretty dense on her part, it has to be said).

Pete: I got shuteye. When a man believes his own lies. Starts believing that he has the power, he’s got shuteye. Because now he believes it’s true. And people get hurt. Good, Godfearing people.

Del Toro’s expansive canvas is to no avail when everything is told through Stan’s prism; there aren’t really any characters but him, because Nightmare Alley relies on us knowing only what he knows. So Molly’s passive. Lilith’s ice cold and calculating (a Blanchette stock type, then). David Strathairn and Toni Collette make something of act “mentors” Pete and Zeena, but they’re the exception. You’d expect Dafoe’s carnival owner Clem to have some significance – he’s armed with a threatening overtone – but like most of the cast, he’s there because del Toro’s in a position to fill out his minor roles luxuriantly. Irresponsibly so, one might argue. Among them are Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, Jim Beaver and Tim Blake Nelson.

Because he has the extra time, there are elements del Toro conveys with due diligence, most notably the tricks of the trade (more effectively and convincingly than in the 1947 movie). There are dotted moments, such as Lilith’s initial challenge to Stan’s act, and the disorientation of being strapped down for a polygraph test, that hold sway. However, the added scrutiny del Toro applies to this grift makes the spirit-materialisation element seem only-more nuts as a result.

While Nightmare Alley features no overtly supernatural elements, it does attest to the validity of tarot; everyone, even a reluctant Stan, recognises the accuracy of Zeena’s readings. He draws Tower/ Lovers/ Hanged Man (reversed, which he flippantly proceeds to turn over). Notably, there’s lore in there too, with Zeena emphasising the choice he still has, and his assertion “You said yourself, there’s no such thing as bad cards”.

In common with del Toro’s big-budget studio efforts, it’s increasingly difficult to divine thematic resonance amid the immersion in genre for genre’s sake and production value for production value’s sake; Nightmare Alley lands as little more than pastiche, but mechanically so. This is not the kind where you feel the enthusiasm for the noir tradition. It goes through the motions every bit as much as Shutter Island – or Cape Fear – did. One might consider the lesson “People are desperate to tell you who they are, desperate to be seen” as a comment on our current social media culture, but it’s no more than an aside. Likewise, one might see the professional hoodwinking of an audience, feeding them what they think they want, to be the modus operandi of the last-gasping MSM. What's that? It's a commentary on Trump America? If that's his intent, it's simply a case of things coming around again, of one-size-fits-all weak sauce, as there's no substantial difference in content to the previous version.

Anderson: I don’t know why he bothers with you. you’re cheap, pal. Just phoney.

There was a time when del Toro was thoroughly bogged down in development hell, as if he’d drawn his own dread spread, backing out of The Hobbit and unable to get either Hellboy III or At the Mountains of Madness made; his Wiki page on unproduced projects is as long as his bio. Since then, only The Shape of Water – for better or worse – has the handcrafted quality that initially saw his star rise. You left wondering why, of all the projects he could have made, he’d choose this one to consume three years of his life. Nightmare Alley is del Toro on autopilot, respectable but hollow, and the lack of response from audiences – critics gave it a pass – speaks volumes.

Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…