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Nightmare Alley

Alley of the Nightmares

I can't say I love this poster, but it accurately reflects that
these people are in this movie. So, points for that.

dir: Guillermo Del Toro

2021

Ye gods, what a keen and dark flick.

Legendary Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro often makes movies about (older) movies, but rarely outright remakes older movies. This, though based on a book, is a remake of a film from the 1940s.

As well, as much as it might sound like blasphemy to say this, I don’t always like or even get Del Toro’s movies. I love what his crew do visually with the visual language of film, but sometimes, or quite often, I find it almost impossible to connect to the characters.

I didn’t have that problem with what I think was his last film, The Shape of Water, which I watched on a plane, back when that was a thing people did, which won a bunch of stuff. It’s had a bit of a backlash against it since then, but also the last time I mentioned it to someone in a conversation about movies, neither of us could remember the name of the film.

I am not going to have that problem here. This is a masterful, controlled, perfectly realised vision of a Depression-era story about an amoral chancer who thinks he’s too smart to ever pay the price for his deceptions, but he very much gets his comeuppance.

And how. It’s not the first time Bradley Cooper has played a too smart for his own good arsehole (as in Limitless), but this time it’s in the service of a story slightly more grounded in cold reality, or at least a reality closer to recognisable from the 1930s. It’s a hard-scrabble time, everyone’s poor, everyone is desperate for a meal and a few cents. Stan (Cooper), after having some kind of grim experience at some house on fire, stumbles into a circus, and tries to make himself useful in order to have a roof over his head.

It’s the standard travelling circus of that era that is deeply ingrained in our (Western, of a certain age) consciousness: tormented animals, people with deformities or physical differences for audiences to gawk at, and then something much worse.

We forget, because the term has such ubiquity and none of the stigma anymore, but a geek was a particular thing, back in the day. And if we watch the flick, and listen carefully, we’ll learn anew what a geek started off being, rather than a catch-all term for anyone that liked computers and comic books a little bit too much.

In what turns out to be the most crucial scene of the film, the right hand man to the circus boss (played grimly by Willem Dafoe, doncha know?) explains to Stan exactly what a geek is: it’s a person so broken by life (and addiction) that he can barely manage human speech, but for his bread and butter, he’ll bite the heads off of live chickens for the delight and horror of the audience.

In this grim era, poor people with barely enough money to get by, need someone to feel better than, hence the attraction’s attraction.

So grim, and Stan listens to all of that intently, but is then all like: yeah yeah yeah but here are My Plans for world domination…

He comes to the attention of a married couple who have an old timey act, pretending to have psychic abilities, being able to cold read audiences and dazzle them with pretty simple and obvious tricks. This is fascinating to Stan, who likes the idea of being able to trick idiots out of their money.

Zeena and Pete (the great Toni Collette and just as great David Strathairn) aren’t really out to grind their marks / victims into dust, but Stan only wants to absorb everything they know that he can use, so what’s a guy to do other than sleep with another man’s wife and then poison some fuckers along the way?

Stan isn’t really depicted (for most of the flick’s length, despite the opening scene alluded to continuously) as that cruel or that evil. He’s just an amoral chancerThe implication is that, lacking any form of moral compass, and living at a time when most people are desperate to get by, sure, maybe the chances he takes are a bit ruthless, but what’s a guy to do?

The psychic couple do teach him things, but tell him never to cross these two lines: don’t try to trick people with the supernatural / mystical stuff, and don’t fuck with the Tarot cards.

Shysters, grifters and con artists who still believe you shouldn’t fuck with fate.

Because he’s nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is, of course Stan does whatever the fuck he wants, and doesn’t care who he uses along the way. Whether it’s Zeena, Pete, the circus itself, or the affections of the young and presumably somehow innocent Molly (Rooney Mara), Stan will use them all to get to some place he thinks he deserves. Someplace Better.

Of course the film feels most assured while Stan is somehow clawing his way up; less so when he’s precariously at the top. Through the magic and trickery of the cinematic arts, the carnival feels like a real, actual place, despite probably being 95% CGI. There’s something about the angles the camera uses to capture movement that is so seductive and convincing, at least to me.

The people, the carnie folk, are almost all familiar (at least to me) character actors, and that’s all the better for it. They’re able to imbue small roles with a lot of presence. Saves time that way.

Once Stan has his big revelation that he’s capable of convincing almost anyone that he can commune with the dead, well, there’s no end to his hubris. This next phase of the film is perhaps not as enjoyable as the first part (it is a long-arsed movie, have no doubts), if ‘enjoyable’ is really the word I’m looking for, but it works its wonders in increasingly disturbing ways, as the player fails to realise just how much he’s being played.

If there’s a saintly, ‘innocent’ female character, then there has to be the femme fatale. This is film noir from the 1940s after all, where women existed in only two states, never more, and never both at the same time.

When Stan reinvents himself as The Great something or other, with Molly as his assistant, he comes to the attention of a psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who seemingly tries to take him down, to reveal to the audience that Stan’s a con artist. Stan turns the tables on her, though, because he is, after all, quite simple. He can’t imagine anyone else, let alone a woman who radiates cold evil from the moment she appears onscreen, could be smarter or griftier than him.

But the good Doctor Lilith Ritter has plans for Stan. She wants revenge for something, either against the patriarchy, against Stan specifically because he belittled her, or against someone that did her great harm once. Either way, none of the strings that she’s pulling are hidden to us, but they’re invisible to Stan. Before we start feeling sorry for him, he is, after all, a raging arsehole who will get in over his head no matter how many signs there are that he should turn back.

The latter part of the flick has to do with Stan trying to fool a very rich, very deranged monster called Grindle (Richard Jenkins) into thinking Stan can somehow, if the price is right, make Grindle’s lady love of yesteryear physically appear again. No one, except Stan, thinks this plan could possibly work, and, damn, it’s hard to accept that the flick goes forward like this, because it’s a truly stupid plan.

Let me put it this way: a famous showman with his famous assistant try to trick a rich guy who likes killing women that the showman’s famous assistant is not only not the famous assistant, but a different woman entirely, and a lady ghost at that. That’s not a clever plan from a brilliant grifter. It’s a stupid plan from someone who’s had all weekend to do their homework, but wakes up Monday morning thinking they can wing that physics exam, having never opened the text book.

What we’re meant to see is that it’s not just hubris that undoes the man – Lilith knows enough about someone like Stan that she finds all the ways to break him down well before he even notices how many pieces he’s in. It would not be the first time a doctor has used their knowledge of psychiatry / psychology to destroy someone completely and utterly. Why, just last weekend I met a psychologist at a pub over drinks with friends, and she said some things that make the cruel doctor here look like one of the Teletubbies in comparison, but I digress.

It’s chilling to watch, but she’s not the one who pulls the trigger, so to speak. Stan’s choices are his own, and they are all terrible, terrible choices. The climax of the flick is a brutal bloodbath, because of course Del Toro could not help himself, being Guillermo Fucking Del Toro, but it leads to one of the most perfect, most appropriate endings of a film that I’ve ever seen.

Perfectly devastating.

This was made during the pandemic, and it shows, and feels like it too, but the artistry, the skill that’s been poured into this is almost palpable. Almost no-one got to see this, because, geez, what lunatic wanted to go to a cinema to watch something so bleak when millions were dying, but I thought it was an immensely strong film for much of its length. Some changes Del Toro made from the original story make a lot of sense, others don’t. Rooney Mara’s character of Molly is barely a character, which is a shame. Maybe she was a ghost the whole time, who knows? I did laugh when she calls Cate Blanchett’s character a “frozen faced bitch” though, but it would be impolite to elaborate.

There are some other niggles, like Cooper’s age, maybe, or that appalling mustache he has in the second half of the flick, which I guess is era-appropriate, but yikes almighty. But all in all I thought this was a pretty solid, pretty keen flick, and I enjoyed it immensely.

8 times laughing at the Hanged Man tarot card is not a wise course of action out of 10

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“Mister, I was born for it.” - Nightmare Alley

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