26 September 2023

Nightmare Alley

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Reviewed by Hannah Spencer.

Director: Guillermo del Toro, Searchlight Pictures, 2021, MA15+ 150mins.

A gripping thriller, twisting and turning through the seedy underbelly of 1940s carnival life.

Fresh off setting fire to his home with an unknown corpse inside, antihero Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook) quickly falls in with a travelling carnival.

Embroiled in the world of carnies and freakshow acts, Stanton quickly learns the ropes including the sinister attraction of the carnival “geek”, a man lured by addiction to live as a caged beast, biting the heads off live chickens for entertainment (yes, apparently this was a real thing).

However, it is in the world-weary couple Zeena (Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine) and Pete that Stanton finds his calling.

Mentored in the methods of their fake clairvoyancy act, Stanton finds he has a talent for reading people and a flair for showmanship.

With beautiful performer Molly (Rooney Mara, Carol) in tow, Stanton sets off to make a new life with his own mind reading performance.

Moving from the dustbowl of post-depression America to the gilded halls of New York, the dizzying production design and art deco detailing by Tamara Deverell (The Shape of Water) is exquisite throughout this film noir inspired movie.

Despite Stanton’s newfound success, he is incapable of filling the gaping void inside himself.

Running afoul of his own hubris and the psychoanalyst Dr. Ritter, played by Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) in her element as a cunning femme fatale, Stanton is destined for catastrophic downfall.

Adapted from the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, Hellboy) exchanges his previous fantastical monsters for the monstrosity of mankind.

A sordid thriller winding through the depths of human depravity and damnation, set to a backdrop of classic Americana.

There are more than a few twists in this tense, slow burning tale with a ghastly conclusion however, it is an intensely enjoyable journey.

4 out of 5 stars

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