Nightmare Alley ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Nightmare Alley (2021)
Nightmare Alley
~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp ~ 

If you are a grown-up movie fan and you are not interested in movies about comic book super heroes (or other youth-oriented claptrap), you might want to take a look at a 2021 movie called Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro and based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham. It’s a movie that’s bursting with intelligence, cinematic artistry and vintage atmosphere. A feast for the eyes, the ears and the mind.

The story is about the rise and fall of a fake “mentalist” named Stanton Carlisle (played brilliantly by Bradley Cooper). He comes from out of the gutter and, purely by chance, begins working in a seedy traveling carnival. He falls in with a fortune teller/tarot reader named Zeena (Toni Collette), who, if you haven’t guessed, is a complete fake. Zeena has an old, booze-addled husband named Pete. The two of them (Zeena and Pete) teach Stanton their elaborate “code” for reading minds. The idea is to dazzle the audience and make them believe they are truly witnessing the miracle of mind-reading, while, in reality, it’s only a paper moon.

Molly (Rooney Mara) is a fresh-as-a-rosebud girl working in a sideshow in a skimpy outfit with electricity coursing through her body. She believes in Stanton Carlisle and comes to love him. (Can anybody truly love him?) Stanton tells Molly that the two of them can transcend the traveling carnival and graduate to the high-class big time.

A year or so later, Stanton and Molly have “made it.” They have perfected the mind-reading code and are performing before white-tie audiences in swanky nightclubs. (Stanton does the reading of minds while Molly feeds him the cues.) One night, a “consulting psychiatrist” named Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) sees the show and is impressed when she tries to fool Stanton and he sidesteps with a clever dodge. She arranges to meet Stanton later, when she tells him how he can make some real dough with a “spook show” in which he convinces wealthy “marks” that they are reconnecting with long-lost loved ones. These heart-broken rich people, it seems, will pay any amount to believe they are communicating with their dearly departed.

In reptilian Dr. Ritter with her scary red lips, Stanton Carlisle has met his match. He tells her in one of their more intimate moments that she is no good; he knows this because he is no good, either. She tells him he is an “Okie with straight teeth.” We come to see by the end of the movie that she is actually worse than he is.

Stanton Carlisle does some horrible things throughout the two hours and thirty minutes of the movie, but we can’t help liking him (even just a little bit), so that makes him (in my book, at least) an anti-hero. He somehow manages to capture, and keep, the sympathy of the audience through to the end. What a movie! I loved it!

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

3 thoughts on “Nightmare Alley ~ A Capsule Movie Review

  1. I actually watched this film the other day. I personally thought some scenes were a bit slow and dragged on a bit much. Yet overall a really fun, interesting mystery.

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