Rating: *** ½
Nightmare Alley Movie Review: “I was born for it,” sobs Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle at the end of what is an exhausting and yet exhilarating 160-minute journey into the heart of darkness.He refers to what was known as the ‘geek’ in the circuses of yore where a man was chained and starved and put on display like an animal in a cage.
The geek in Nightmare Alley reminded me of the creature in Guillermo del Toro’s last film The Shape Of Things for which he won an Oscar for Best Director. There is no such danger in Nightmare Alley. The film’s rocky destiny is marred by bouts of selfdoubt that every character goes through and yet proceeds to do the wrong things, from adultery to forgery to felony.
This is a world of desperate gold-diggers,fortune-hunters with no patience or appetite for guilt. Cooper and Blanchett have a great deal of fun with their parts, although this is not the occasion for it.After scamming several who trust him, Stan meets the conniving seductress Lilith(Cate Blanchett) who is sharp and saucy; in other words Stan with his dim-witticism and dull comprehension of human nature in spite of being a fortune teller,is no match for Lilith.
More his league is the straightforward dis-enchantress(a new coinage to describe a woman who is neither seductive nor aspires to be) Zeena(Toni Collette) and Mary(Rooney Mara). The former ,Stan fucks, the latter he betrays until Lilith fucks him over.
Nothing is what it seems in Nightmare Alley. The drama unravels like a mirror of illusions in the travelling carnival where most of the darkness erupts into a blinding light of frightening blight where nothing is what it seems and what we see is not even a part of the truth regarding the lives of the characters who live in a permanent state of impermanence and treachery.
Having said the above, let me hasten to clarify that I didn’t like the film as much as the Oscars committee, which in all its wisdom, has shortlisted this strange untameable beast of a film for Best Picture. Best of luck with that.
Nightmare Alley leaves us with more questions than answers on the nature of faith and belief.
The 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham on which the film is based is dark sinister twisted and unlikeable. The film follows the same route, portraying its con-artiste hero Stan as an illicit illusionist who lucks out when he manages to guess a grieving couple(the extraordinary Mary Steenburgen and Peter MacNeill)’s source of sorrow and proceeds to exploit their feelings.
Stan then bites into more than he can chew when he tries his clairvoyant tricks with a mobster Ezra(Richard Jenkins). This episode ends on a disastrous note, both for Stan and for the audience , as its underlying message of nemesis comes too late. All through the film Bradley Cooper plays Stan as an artless , though not heartless deceiver, more sinner against than sinned. Stan’s self righteous outlawry comes to a sticky end with no one left any happier , us the audience included,than the point at which it all began.
Nonetheless The Nightmare Alley is a work of unexpected rewards provide you stick it out. The way in which Stan misuses his gyan on reading the future, turning it smoothly into into a scam industry, shows that a moral degeneration is the worst scourge since the plague….give or take the pandemic.