Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Noir Watch: Nightmare Alley (2021)

Watched:  02/11/2021
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Director:  Guillermo Del Toro

I've seen the original Nightmare Alley from 1947 a number of times.  I'm sure you can dig through the archives of this here site and find mentions, but what I would say is that on repeated viewings, for a movie that was so... grim and off-kilter, I felt compelled to rewatch the story of Stanton Carlisle and the worlds between which he moved.  And I found myself increasingly blown away with each viewing.  Today, the 1947 version is included in the pile of movies I would request to have when stranded on an island with a bluray player and television.

It was with some trepidation that I heard that director Guillermo Del Toro had taken on the movie for a remake, and that with writer Kim "Sunset Gun" Morgan, he'd be adhering more closely to the novel.  I have flat out not liked some of Del Toro's films (Pacific Rim) and not understood the hoopla around others (The Shape of Water).  But had enjoyed some of what I'd seen, which wasn't a lot.  

There's no question that Del Toro is a visual perfectionist - or at least visually very specific, and has created some of the most indelible images in cinema in the last forty years.  He's the heir apparent to the horror scene of the 1920's  - 1940's, from monster films to stuff like The Black Cat.  And while the 1947 version of the film is 100% an entry in the Film Noir movement of the post-war-era, it also ups the game through visuals and human frailty to a level of despair that feels like it ends in horror.  I can imagine a few directors taking on a remake, but given Del Toro's sensitivity to character, which has usually been at the heart of his films and keeps you invested beyond "neat visuals", I saw no reason he wouldn't be up to the task.

Look, whatever else I might nitpick about - I very much enjoyed Nightmare Alley (2021) - as much as one can enjoy a film that doesn't invite a lot of giggles.  I am sure the movie would be different in another director's hands, and that's a fun thought experiment, but getting a Del Toro version of the film, with top-shelf talent taking on the roles (to be clear, the original was an A picture, not some low-rent production), a script that did not miss, and lovely design in every frame...  if you're so inclined, you owe it to yourself to watch the movie.

Replacing Tyrone Power, we get one of my current favorite actors, Bradley Cooper, playing Stanton Carlisle, whose journey we'll witness from tramp to carny to the toast of upper-class entertainment.  Rooney Mara takes on Coleen Gray's role as Molly.  Cate Blanchett, the steel-laced psychologist.  And Toni Collett as Zeena the Seer.  But we also get Willem Defoe as the geek wrangler, Ron Perlman tapping in for Mike Murkowski, and the list goes on.  Hell, Mary Steenburgen is used so effectively, we're all gonna wonder why no one thought to use her this way before.  But also:  David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, Tim Blake Nelson and a bunch of folks you know but whose names might not immediately come to you - but everyone here delivers (not that's a shock those last three names are anything less than stellar).

Nightmare Alley basically has two parts - Stanton at the carnival and Stanton as a successful nightclub mentalist with Molly at his side.  There's so much there in the comparison and contrasts - of the run down carnival and it's sketchy cons and grotesqueries.  It's a twilight world of the desperate and the outcast, brought into sharp focus by twin pictures of alcoholism, with Pete - a former star Mentalist, and the Geek - an old carnival staple.  And, then the second half in a pre-War Buffalo, NY (then a bustling city on the move), with it's high end nightclubs, millionaires and psychologists who look like Cate Blanchett, all in art deco splendor.  It's the dream and as much as Okie Stanton Carlisle could have ever dreamed of achieving.

Until, of course, a dangerous woman and some overreach lead him down - or perhaps just set him on a faster pace - the wrong path.  

Despite warnings not to over-promise with his mentalist act - by way of turning it into a spook show/ pretending he's speaking to dead people - he eventually does move beyond nightclub gags and begins to get a glimpse of the real money.  Spiritualism was just dying out in the 1940's (although it never fully went away) and the movie never wants to say it's anything other than a con.  In Nightmare Alley, everything is a con and show, and everyone's a grifter and everyone's a mark.  That's not something you can outsmart - sooner or later, you're going to get taken.  

Cooper's version of Stanton is broken differently than Power's, with Cooper's take less a case of Stanton's overconfidence and more a case of noir-ish human frailty leading to overreach.  Rather than a Stanton on the make, fireworks from the beginning, it's a gradual burn to the incendiary finish.   He's come from something grim, and he enters into the world of carnivals entirely by accident.  Cooper's Stanton slowly comes apart, but the seams were always there.  I look forward to rewatching the film to see what's placed there in plot and script and what Cooper is doing in each scene now that I've seen it all the way through.  It's a film that understands characters enter from somewhere else, they don't materialize in place.  

There are things in the film that are, frankly, key plot points that I felt were fumbled.  Stanton, the ardent teetotaler, does eventually pick up a drink, and as an audience member I understood why in that moment the script thought he should do it, but I didn't buy that his seduction and self-delusion would have overcome what was his lifelong aversion to drink.  It seemed just as, or more likely, he would choose that moment to push the drink away as his refusal to that point had gotten him to where he wanted to go.  I might have even bought it more if Blanchett's psychologist had put the drink to his mouth.  But then the path from "I had a drink" to "I am so wasted I'm making terrible decisions" seems like it's... days?  It rings false.  

The other bobble is how hard the set-up was for "and here's how we make a geek".  While noir is all about the inevitable doom of the lead (sometimes they pull out, sometimes they don't), it was just too much.  Give the audience some credit - don't tell them "he's going to be a geek at the end" in the first 30 minutes.  

In a movie otherwise working in deft presentation of themes, these two things felt like they had neon signs pointing at them, and it's a weird combination.

But, I'll stop there.  I think this is one of those movies where you could spend 10,000 words talking about it and dissecting character, theme, the American Dream, and all those fun and fancy film school topics.  It's all there.  And, all in all, I liked the film .  I'm not sure it replaced the original at this time in my mind's eye, but I'm very glad something like this can still be made in this decade.  It might get Oscars nods, but it's not Oscar bait.  It takes itself seriously despite it's absurd set-ups and scenarios, and in the end has plenty to say both textually and subtextually.  Hell, I'm ready to unpack Stanton's dalliance with three women right now, and what it means that one is reading Tarot.  

Anyway, there's a LOT in there.  


Stuart said...

Yeah, I came in blind to this one and the ending was so clumsily telegraphed, it made the whole thing feel like a Twilight Zone episode padded to feature-length. I also didn't buy him picking up the drink, or that he didn't know he was being conned, other than those things needed to happen for the plot to move forward. I did enjoy the texture of it, just being in that world, but felt short-changed on story and character. Almost like they made the movie as an excuse to build those sets and costumes.

The League said...

I think there's a ton there that was handled gracefully and said within subtext getting at all sorts of things, but as always with noir, YMMV if that clicks with the viewer. I haven't read the novel, but Kim Morgan was pretty vocal about how much the book tracks alcoholism for characters, so it didn't shock me she leaned into it in her screenplay. Drinking was not as heavily emphasized in the 1947 version- ie: it was not a main driver for Stanton. I think in trying to differentiate the two version, del Toro took it too far and really hit the audience in the face with both the evils of booze (for our men), and the geek thing, which really is part of the booze thing. Unfortunately, it's so clunky and prominent it dulls everything else and makes more interesting things handled more deftly recede. This is the kind of stuff where I can't get onboard with del Toro as World's Best Director. I don't get why they leaned so hard into what wound up feeling like middle school sketch moralizing when I think you can get Stanton to fall without lifting a glass, and it makes for a more compelling fall if its just him fudging up.

Stuart said...

I still think Del Toro is a gifted storyteller and is using his talent to make movies he would've wanted to see as a kid. Which is not a terrible way to spend your brief time on this Earth. Just kinda lost me on this one.

The League said...

I don't disagree that's what he's up to. I just think he's about 65% as good as his reputation warrants and I wish he'd push himself a bit harder to feel like a grown up storyteller using the visuals.