Guillermo Del Toro returns to the big screen with a remake of Edmund Goulding’s 1947 carnival noir Nightmare Alley – itself based on the William Lindsay Gresham novel. It stars Bradley Cooper delivering what could be his best performance to date as Stanton Carlisle, a dashing drifter who joins a ‘geek show’ carnival. He soon manipulates his way to the top of mentalist shows, and learns the wrong way that “if you displease the right people, the world closes in on you very fast”.
This gorgeously ghoulish spin on ‘The Great Gatsby’ is superb to look at, with every carefully crafted detail yielding rewards throughout the runtime – especially when it comes to what could be non-spoilerifically referred to as Chekhov’s pendant. Del Toro brilliantly merges film noir sensibilities with his trademark aesthetic, crafting an enveloping and disturbing mood that permeates every frame.
In the debit column, Rooney Mara gets precious little to do compared to her co-stars (especially the ever-excellent Toni Collette and Cate Blanchett, who has a great time vamping up the screen), and it could be argued that Cooper might be a bit too old for the anti-hero role (he’s referred to as “kid” and “young buck” on more than one occasion).
However, his acting chops save the day and make up for a second act that does tend to drag. And when it comes to the last act, in which tables turn and the classic sprinkler sprinkled trope rears its dramatic head, his performance alone drives home the deliciously dark resolution and leaves the audience with a rise-and-fall morality tale that’s both haunting and heartbreaking. Seriously, good luck finding a gut-punch ending shot like this one.
Nightmare Alley / D: Guillermo Del Toro (US, 2021), with Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe. Starts January 27.