Guillermo del Toro‘s sumptuously crafted neo-noir Nightmare Alley (2021), based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, first adapted to screen in 1947, is theatrical to a fault, and gorgeous to look at – a goth Norman Rockwell – yet hermetically sealed to any insight that would turn our gaze inward, away from its mesmerising scenery – its characters suffering the same suffocating fate in its dense nocturnal world.
In a film noir a lack of air, light, or indeed insight into the internal universe of a character does not necessarily have to be detrimental, given the genres affinity for portraits of mysterious doom, but what it must have is undeniable chemistry between its leads – and here this intricately designed storyline strangely collapses.
In a literal cornucopia of acting talent on hand, I would peg the choice of Bradley Cooper as centrepiece of this tale of deceit, hubris, and retribution in the world of carnivals and war-time Americana for its key point of weakness. The casual straightforwardness of Cooper worked extremely well in A Star Is Born, but this earthy quality is a liability in a noir, which, as an interplay of shadows and light, relies on ambiguities, an electrifying mix of tension, dread, and attraction – a dark magic igniting its archetypal workings, creating an obsidian mirror for our collective scrying.
The complex, cynical, snake-charmer persona of Stanton, the protagonist, an ambitious, strategic con-man, with a murky, bloody past, required a mercurial presence, someone that can convey this dark surface, absorbing all surrounding light like a inversed, Black Sun. Someone like Cate Blanchett‘s femme fatale psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter, so intent on detonating Stanton’s conniving self-absorption, if only she had someone to play with as the vortex Other, instead of her own reflexion in the camera lens.
I did not believe for minute the fascination between the two, so this entire magnificent construction turned into a house of cards.
There are saving graces, and moments of beauty – one of them is wide-eyed Rooney Mara, as Molly, the talented carny ingenue that Stanton took a liking to, and made his partner in crime; the other is Stanton’s mentor, teaching him tricks of the mentalist’s trade, a soulful David Strathairn as the tragic alcoholic Pete, who’s main error was reminding Stanton a bit too much of his own father.
Another powerful turn comes form a grim Richard Jenkins, as Ezra Grindle, the very rich, very dangerous man, who hires Stanton to conjure his lost love, desperate for any kind of redemption – but settling for one money can buy.
Del Toro’s extrodinary power of imagination offers us a wonderful immersion into a very specific universe and period of time – in that the film succeeds, brilliantly. But, unlike its overconfident mentalist protagonist – cinema, as an art form, requires actual magic, to work well.
That ingredient Nightmare Alley does not provide.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov