Gueillermo's Latest Bridges Paranormal to Film Noir
Score: 7/10 Categories: Mystery/Thriller/Film Noir Director: Guillermo del Toro
What a stunning cast from a formidable filmmaker we have come so much to love and adore.
For hardcore Guillermo fans, be warned: in this, he leaves much of the beloved supernatural and paranormal elements at bay; though intrinsically at play, they do not embody here as in his previous works you may have loved, i.e. Pan's Labyrinth or Crimson Peak. However, visually and artistically, it whimsically reembodies the architecture and design aspects of art deco and nouveau periods masterfully, and it is beautiful.
This is a much more real del Toro, playing on the myths of superstitions and the occult, rather than embracing them wholeheartedly and instead seeing them for the falsifiers they can be rather than embellishing the mythos. It can be seen as a passage of maturity as a filmmaker, to approach these subjects with a delicate and loving glove, yet calling them out for their obscurities and deceits.
It's in that perspective very Guillermo: an object, a power, an entity, a person representing something more than they actually are. Symbolic, mythological, otherwordly. In Cronos, there is everlasting life given a sacrifice. In Pan's Labyrinth, we escape to a fantasy world beyond the brutal reality of the Spanish Civil War. In Crimson Peak, we empathize with the loss of the characters to the dust of the Industrial Revolution. In Nightmare Alley, the only mirrors and smoke are from Bradley Cooper, aka Stanton Carlisle, a false medium who fancies his clients and audiences with promises of ties to the unknown, the psychic exterior, the brutal inner psyche.
He preys upon our weaknesses as everyday humans, our pains, our struggles, by using a communicable system. We've all heard it before: fortune tellers draw on human queues, body language, physical attributes we dismissed. What he chooses to do with this skill is the trajectory of his character arc. Will he use it for good or bad? For the betterment of others or for personal gain? Or can he mischievously tie them into one purpose?
A "geek" in carnie terms (perhaps the origin of which we know now) is: untalented individuals who were often alcoholics and drug addicts and paid with liquor to do the deeds no one else in the party wished to do, lacking social or other skills.
As in other del Toro vehicles, Nightmare Alley wrangles in our worst inner demons. Was it the chicken or the egg? Was a person born bad or brought that way by society? Is Stanton to blame for feeding our insecurities as humans or are we to blame for giving him the slack and feeding into it?
There's a brilliant scene where Stanton convinces the local Sheriff (played by Jim Beaver) that his contributions are relevant and respected - all this based upon human reading, his necklace, physical attributes, emotional intuition - and that Stanton's abilities are REAL. It preys so much upon our human ability to ignore the finite and our naiveté in being mesmerized by the dream of what if and idealism.
Mary Steenburgen gives light and darkness to the voice of lost possibilities (enabled by a false prophet) and human tragedy.
Rooney Mara gives a solid performance as Molly of reason and grounding, tying Stanton to reality and the chains that he ultimately cannot break free from (despite his faults we do believe in their love). Cate Blanchett as Dr. Ritter serves as his rectifier, his fate - the temptation he cannot deny and thus accepts his true self.
He claims ironically, after all is said and done, "It's what I was born to do."
Regretfully, our supporting cast receives little screen time. Toni Collette, as our inherit psychic, is as enchanting as always, but underutilized. Willem Defoe and Ron Perlman are minor characters, though they do carry some weight. We would have liked to see them more.
It's not the strongest effort we've seen from del Toro, but it's certainly worth your while. It's intoxicating and magical, and whether you believe the fantasy or not it's all on gorgeous display.