Monday March 07, 2022
Movie Review: Nightmare Alley (2021)
His rise is slow and measured, and I bought it. His fall is swift and ironic, and I didn’t. He falls, in part, because warnings in the first act are ignored in the third. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro and screenwriter Kim Morgan (his wife, a former movie critic, super hot) tie it up in a bow that, for all its griminess, is still a little too neat.
I’d never heard of the 1947 original, by the way, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, directed by Edmund Goulding (“Grand Hotel”), and written by Jules Furthman (“The Big Sleep”) from a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Apparently it’s beloved by noir fans. It’s 7.8 on IMDb, 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, even though the Production Code was still in effect and the novel’s dark ending couldn’t be used. So they fudged it. They sweetened it.
For the remake, Bradley Cooper takes the Tyrone Power role as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a down-on-his-luck mystery man who becomes a carny roustabout and grifter in the middle of the Depression. For the first 10 minutes of the film, we don’t hear him speak—to the point where I wondered if he could—but we do see him act. In an old house, he drags a body into a hole in the floorboards, then sets it, and the whole house, aflame as he walks away.* Then he takes a busride, follows a dwarf to a carnival run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), gets a gig, and begins his rise.
(*The oddity of this opening scene is the dragging of the body. If you’re going to set the house on fire, a house in the middle of nowhere, why bother dragging it anywhere? Ashes are ashes.)
Stan has two things going for him: He’s a quick study who’s “easy on the eyes,” as Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) says before jacking him off in the bathtub. The bath costs 10¢; I assume the other was freebie.
Zeena and her partner/hubby Pete (David Strathairn, nice to see you) do a bit for the rubes where, via Pete’s verbal cues, the blindfolded Zeena is able to “see,” say, a wallet or locket of an audience member. They’re also good at reading people, and they teach all this to Stan, who takes it to another level. I was reminded of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes: the black dirt in your fingernails, coupled with the chalky residue of your shoes, means blah blah blah. It’s fun. Particularly when he uses it to prevent a local sheriff (Jim Beaver) from shutting down the carny.
So did he mean to kill Pete or was it an accident? He brings him a bottle of booze but it’s wood alcohol, and Pete dies. By this point Carlisle has won over Molly (Rooney Mara), assistant to Bruno the Strong Man (Ron Perlman), and the two escape the carnival. Then it’s two years later, they’re doing their act in swanky dinner clubs, and, at one such, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist, tries to unmask him as a fraud. He gets the best of her. Then they begin an affair. OK. Then she starts feeding him well-heeled clients, including the Kimballs (Mary Steenburgen and Peter MacNeill), and because that goes well, he gets Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), the most powerful man in town, who lost a lover to a forced abortion.
All this takes us back to the first act—something Pete said about never doing the grift about the afterlife. Turns out he was prescient. To join their child, Mrs. Kimball winds up killing Mr. Kimball and herself, while Grindle uncovers Stan’s ruse—the bloodied, risen ex actually being Molly—and threatens to ruin him. Or kill him? Either way, Stan beats him to the punch by literally beating Grindle to death.
Throughout, Stan has been a teetotaler, underlining the fact that he never touches drink: never never. In therapy sessions with Lilith, we find out why: the dead body he burned in the beginning was his alcoholic father. But then … what is it exactly? … Lilith takes a swig, kisses him, maybe slips him some of the booze, and suddenly he’s a full-blown alcoholic. That’s part of the swift fall I didn’t buy. He goes from zero to 60 in a second. And when he’s on the lam for the Grindle murder, riding the rails, he’s still after drink and sinks fast. Which is why, disheveled, unwashed, booze-ridden, he comes across another carny ...
Wait, back up. We have another first-act return. Back then, Stan was fascinated with “the geek,” the sideshow attraction that lives in filth and bites the heads off chickens. He asks Clem where they come from. And Clem admits they’re manufactured more than anything. An alcoholic comes along, needs a gig, you tell him this geek thing could be temporary but it’ll keep him in booze. Before you know it, he’s the regular, and you’ve got yourself an attraction.
You see where this is going, right? The new carny boss (Tim Blake Nelson) gets a whiff of Stan and trots out the temporary geek line. And Stan smiles. He smiles a desperate smile and laughs a desperate laugh. And he says, “Mister, I was born for it.” And that’s the end. It’s not bad. Great production values. But it’s a bit tied up in a bow.
You know what I wondered afterwards? Why was the geek even a thing? Not here but in our history. Why was it ever an attraction? Who’s attracted by that? A man in filth biting the heads off live chickens? That’s entertainment? Man, we’re a sad race.
And is the movie implying that psychiatry is the grift that replaced mentalism? And what exactly was Lilith’s game? She couldn’t unmask Stan so she brought him low? Or is she just a dick?
Anyway, it was nominated for best picture. It’s not, but it’s OK.