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"Nightmare Alley" (2021) Review

 Contrary to film snob orthodoxy, I'm not much of a fan of Guillermo del Toro. While he's undeniably very good as a stylist, consistently delivering lush, fully realized fantastical settings and characters, his obsession with gratuitous sex and especially violence overhangs his generally thin story-telling. Whether it was Pan's Labyrinth which was sold as a fairy tale about a young girl and mystical creatures which graphically showed a man's face being smashed in with a wine bottle or the appallingly Oscar-winning The Shape of Water (or as I prefer "Grinding Nemo") which mixes graphic masturbating and fish-f*cking with a story where straight white American men are the villains and a rainbow coalition of diversity people are the heroes, the style seemed to be the substance.

 Expecting another empty pretty picture like Crimson Peak, I didn't have much expectation for Nightmare Alley, his remake of a barely-remembered 1947 film which starred Tyrone Power. Clearly tooled up for Oscar baiting - which it somewhat succeeded in doing, snagging four nominations including Best Picture and Cinematography - it stars Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, David Straithairn, Richard Jenkins, and del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman in a dark noir tale of circuses, grifting, high society and, of course, murder.

 Set in 1939, Cooper stars as Stan, a mysterious man who joins up with a carnival and proceeds to gain the confidence of the couple (Collette and Straitharn) who perform a clairvoyant act and learn how they use coded language to pull it off. He also woos a sideshow performer (Mara) and after he uses his cold-reading skills to save the carnival from being shut down by the sheriff, agrees to leave with him for bigger things.

 Two years later, on the verge of World War II, they are headlining as a high society supper club psychic act in Buffalo. One night, a sleek woman (Blanchett) attempts to trip them up, but his skills allow him to wriggle out of the bind. She's a psychologist who beguiles him and entices him into a grift where using information about her patient's from their sessions wire recordings to underpin contact with spirits beyond, first for a the grieving parents of a WWI soldier (Peter MacNeill and Mary Steenburgen), then a very rich, powerful and scary industrialist (Jenkins) who pines for his deceased mistress.

 Showing restraint in the carnage and fueled by top shelf performances, none of which caught the Academy's eye for some inexplicable reason (it's not as if most of the cast hasn't been nominated or won before, especially Cooper, who has the most complex role), del Toro delivers an effective period noir which doesn't just seem a parlor gag. 

However, anyone who knows how noir tales go will easily deduce how it's all going to turn out for Stan and, frankly, how a guy whose entire career is reading marks for a living doesn't look at Blanchett in full Lauren Bacall femme fatale mode and recognize it's going to go very badly for him is baffling. I get that guys are supposed to be dumb due to all the blood flowing out of their big head, but come on.

After flopping hard upon its holiday release, it was swiftly sent to streaming on Hobo Max and Hulu less than two months later. Whether it's really Best Picture quality is debatable; how it apparently directed itself and managed to be a "best picture" despite no nominations for the acting or writing is puzzling, but very on brand for the completely risible Academy these days. But for once I can recommend a del Toro movie even if it's not exceptionally exceptional.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently on HBO Max and Hulu)


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