At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Nightmare Alley “2021”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Neo-Noir Psychological Thriller/ Stars: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver, Mark Povinelli, Romina Power, Paul Anderson, David Hewlett, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Stephen McHattie, Dian Bachar/ Runtime: 150 minutes

I think it is safe to say that by this point in time, everyone with even a modicum of cinematic knowledge is aware that iconic scribe/helmer Guillermo del Toro first and foremost as someone who loves regaling us with narratives that deal with creepy creatures and/or otherworldly elements. Suffice it to say that since he has made a long and iconic career courtesy of such slices of cinema whilst also reaping serious box office profits as well as various amounts of critical acclaim with films like his 2 Hellboy films (still wishing he had been able to give us a 3rd one), 2006’s Pan Labyrinth, 2013’s Pacific Rim, and 2017’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Shape of Water to name but a few, I think it can be argued that this iconic director is, much in the same vein as Spielberg and Scorsese to name but a couple of noteworthy examples, at the period of time in his career where he can literally make any slice of cinema he would like to and the studios will back it. Yet even with that in mind, I still think when you make the choice to sit down and view his 2021 take on the story that is Nightmare Alley you might find yourself pleasantly surprised to say the least. This is because his retelling of this story from 1946 not only has no otherworldly critters to be found anywhere in sight, but it also slightly touches on elements of an otherworldly aspect. In that regard, I can see why a few people might find this cinematic voyage a bit more intimidating than normal, but to those of us who are passionate fans of what del Toro has come up with so far then this new slice of cinema is just another must-see for us especially since it has been, as of this writing, 4 years since his last directorial effort. Either way you look at it however, there is no denying that from the phenomenal cast to the incredible work done behind the camera that the 2021 take on Nightmare Alley is once again not only del Toro at his best, but also genuine movie magic at work through and through.

The plot is as follows: Now much in the same vein as film helmer Edmund Goulding’s prior take on this story from, the tale that is Nightmare Alley is one that places its focus on a man by the name of Stanton Carlisle. Mr. Carlisle, we are soon able to perceive, is a guy with an enigmatic yet bleak past who is able to find steady employment at a traveling carnival where, in addition to spending some “quality time” with a fortune-teller by the name of Zeena, is able to spend his remaining free time not only falling for a kind yet gifted performer named Molly, but also being educated on a unique system for how a mentalist could deceive people into thinking they are all-knowing from Zeena’s drunkard of a husband Pete. Yet when tragedy sadly rears its ugly head once more in his life, we see our hero and Molly head off to Buffalo in order to make a new way in life for himself as a mind-reading extraordinaire. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before Stan’s success puts him smack dab in the crosshairs of an ice-cold woman by the name of Lilith. A woman, who among other attributes, is a skilled member of the field of psychiatry and who partners up with Stan to try and fool a patient of hers named Ezra into thinking that he can put him in touch with his deceased family and friends in order to make amends…..for the right price of course. Yet as the scheme continues to unfold, we soon see that our hero has placed himself square in the middle of a dangerous game that promises a wonderful windfall if he is successful, but if not promises no more and no less than the grimmest and potentially deadliest ramifications possible….

Now it really does seem like on more than one occasion, the genre of movie magic that is the neo-noir genre is a genre that quite a few film helmers try to succeed in, but just as often some aspect of the film always seems off thus resulting in the finished product not being able to quite nail the landing so to speak. It is with that in mind that I think the reason that Guillermo del Toro’s stab at the genre with this slice of cinema works as phenomenally well as it ultimately does can be attributed first and foremost to how he and his creative team behind the camera have a truly wonderful comprehension of how to make this genre of cinema work on the level that it needs to. This is because even when looking at this slice of cinema through its colorized and present day prism, you can easily just how appropriate the various misadventures of this cast of characters would be if they were given to audiences in a black and white format (which I am really hoping the studio considers doing if not while the film is in theaters then maybe as a special feature on the eventual Blu-Ray/DVD release). Yet more than that we also see that spot-on attire, ways of speaking, and design of this slice of cinema’s production also do a great job at making this saga of discovering when you really have gone too far a lovingly old-school Hollywood feel. Yes if this slice of cinema did not possess a necessary and immersive comprehension for just why people adore this old-school style then all of the aforementioned components would just be clever enticements to get those peoples’ butts in seats, but thankfully this is not that kind of movie.

Yet for how wonderful it is that the immensely skilled crew behind the camera are familiar with how to make a slice of cinema in this particular genre, praise must also be given to this film’s extraordinarily brilliant cast in bringing it so vividly to life. Indeed the cast that is getting to play in this cinematic sandbox is not just simply a collection of top-tier performers and some of del Toro’s usual collaborators. Rather, it is also a group of performers who all in their respective parts all give this slice of cinema the jolt of energy in front of the camera it desperately needs. Yet the merging of talents that have been seen in prior del Toro works such as Clifton Collins, Jr, Ron Perlman, and Richard Jenkins alongside such screen dignitaries as Willem Dafoe, Mary Steenburgen, and Rooney Mara to name but a few is just the tip of the acting iceberg. Indeed the true heavyweight in terms of screen presence at the core of this slice of cinema must originate from the character Stanton Carlisle, and it is in this arena where we see Bradley Cooper and his terrific performance come into focus. Indeed making his way through the various misadventures the man goes through, Cooper immerses himself completely as this mentalist/ con man who will become highly regarded and sought after in the Big Apple due to how incredibly well he can read his marks. Indeed taking charge of the part in all the various ups and downs he goes through, I think it can be said that whilst this character goes through things that might seem familiar to the viewer, but it is all still given to us with Cooper blending his wonderful degree of ferocity alongside a significant yet welcome and equal amount of restraint as well. However, if you wish to know who the best and iciest talent in this film is than that undoubtedly would be the always phenomenal Cate Blanchett in the role of Dr. Lilith Ritter. Indeed the team-up of Blanchett and Cooper in this slice of cinema is easily one of this year’s best acting duos as right from their first moments together it proves to be exactly what fans of cinema love to see. Sure you are most likely going to enter this cinematic voyage with your own notions when it comes to her character’s motives for what she is doing in this film, but even if your ideas prove to be incorrect is neither here nor there as Blanchett not only gives a truly chilling and spot-on performance, but also does a wonderful job at giving us yet another iconic character to add to her fairly stellar cinematic legacy.

All in all I feel it should be said that when you throw in a horrendous amount of personal stress on a slice of cinema that a helmer views as a “passion project”, it can absolutely throw even the most renowned helmers off their game a wee bit. Indeed it is due in large part to that proven time and time again fact that I think even the most hopeful amongst you might get a wee bit of a knot in your stomach and fear in your brow when you first buy your ticket for the 2021 take on Nightmare Alley because of the highly publicized fact that its iconic and gifted helmer, one Guillermo del Toro, has made his desire to helm a slice of cinema that fits snug as a bug in the neo-noir genre of movie magic known for quite a while now. Yet rather than seeing this dream project fall flat on its face, we see that through his immensely riveting skill as a teller of pitch-black fare that del Toro is able to take this opportunity head-on and chooses to make the most of this dream come true in a slice of cinema that turns out to be a beautifully bleak triumph. Yes this scribe/helmer has been for a long time now regarded as a creator whose loves are as crystal clear as his take on things especially when he is assembling a slice of cinema for audiences to enjoy. Suffice it to say that the 2021 take on Nightmare Alley without a singular doubt in my mind is able to definitively show that del Toro has thankfully not permitted his incredible passion for movie magic blow either his helmsmanship nor the slices of cinema he chooses to helm dramatically out of proportion; instead he chooses to keep you, the viewer riveted to the edge of your seat in such a manner that it is able to help him stay rooted whilst also permitting his distinct blend of visceral brutality and chilling gore to come out and play at just the right times in this story. Thus when you add that wonderful helmsmanship alongside a cast that is truly the very dictionary definition of top-flight and a narrative with enough twists and turns that it feels like the cinematic representation of a labyrinth that you can’t wait to get to the core of, I can honestly say that I see beyond a doubt del Toro and the studio’s reasoning to release this slice of cinema solely as a movie going experience you will have to witness because it most assuredly is the kind of movie magic that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible and then some. On a scale of 1-5 I give Nightmare Alley “2021” a solid 4 out of 5.