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Review: 'Nightmare Alley' (2022) Dir. Guillermo del Toro

Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen. David Strathairn and Peter MacNeill


The second big-screen adaptaion of the 1946 thriller by William Lindsay Gresham features an all-star cast and explores neo-noir psychology wrapped up in a story of scandals and secrets...

Loner Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Cooper) flees his past to travel as a carnival worker, travelling with the likes of Clement "Clem" Hoately (Dafoe), illusionist Mary Elizabeth "Molly" Cahill (Mara) and clairvoyant Zeena Krumbein (Collette).

Stan learns a number of tricks within the group, such as the power of manipulation, deciet and faith when used to sway others. Stan also forms strong relationships with Clem, Molly and Zeena but yearns for more with his acquired skills.

Reinventing himself as "The Great Stanton", his sights are set on bigger, better things. But his world his turned upside down and his level of deception is pushed to the limit when he meets Lilith Ritter (Blanchett) who wants his talent to pull apart the local social elite...

A late 1930s setting in America, free from any real fantasty and flamboyance usually associated with the visionary Guillermo del Toro, initally looks like a thrilling neo-noir exploration of the human mind and the power of manipulation. And that's just what it is, except it is full of the minute detail and grandeaur that del Toro injects into his films to build an immersive world full of speculation, wonder and mystery. From the bright lights and big tops of a Midwestern carnival, to the bustling city of Buffalo, del Toro makes this picture a beautiful, atmospheric one to watch from the start.

Much like 2017s The Shape of Water, there is time taken to establish characters and these somewhat ordinary worlds lived in. It's all down to slow paced camera shots, gentle framing, a script that explores morality and psychology, not just melodrama. del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan adapt the source material perfectly for their haunting and moody exploration of psychological manipulaton and power.

Bradley Cooper continues his evolution as a solid actor with solid roles, here as the ever-shady Stanton, a man with a dark past but who is ready to do what it takes to become somebody in his future. Cooper walks with an air of mystery, never knowing where his character could go next or what step he will take. Yet he carries a great sense of confidence and self-assurance, but also a lot of fragility. He's a complex man and easy at times to dislike, but he's not without charm and style.

The cast here is perfect for their roles, be it quirky, fragile carnies or manipulative, absorbing con-artists. Their world is a fascinating one, and you can't help be sucked in by the performances.

Cate Blanchett, born to perform these neo-noir roles, adds a new spark to proceedings and helps increase the severity and risk to these dangerous games. Her psychologist seeks to bring down the social elite she treats in confidence, and Stanton is the perfect tool to enforce this. Blanchett and Cooper help drive the narrative when they unite, not letting the others get much of a look in.

A supporting cast of carnies include the brilliant Toni Collette, Ron Pearlman and a passionate Wilem Dafoe. However small or contained their roles are, they still flesh out their individual traits and impressions on Stanton that resonate through the story, pulling his morals this way and that as he does what he think is right with the demons he battles. The sweet Rooney Mara as Molly is the one small flickering ember of good left in Stanton's dangerous world, and she is the one you pray gets out in one peace from the nightmare escalating around her.

Without del Toro going full nightmarish / gothic horror as he is known for more in the market, here he is somewhat restrained in one way by keeping proceedings grounded and real, but subconciously isn't afraid to tap into the dark side of mental health and psychology. The horror on show is that inside the mind and the dark shadows Stanton works in, knowing how much to push people to the edge all to make money. It's this exploration of simple tricks and manipulation that increase the risk and danger of the world Stanton now lives, feeling as untouchable as Ritter the more they go down the rabbit hole to get what they want.

Light and colour is used to gorgeous atmospheric effect, knowing how to create a vast sense of space and warmth, even in the coldest of circumstances. Everything seems to have a richness about it, and is testament to the crew bringing this period to life with sets, costumes and props in use.

The pressure and danger increases as the story reaches it's desperate, bloody climax where events and characters unwravel with the expected emotional punch that del Toro usually delivers, mixed with some powerful imagery on screen to haunt us as the credits role.

A gorgeous looking neo-noir thriller that immerses you in the psychology of manipulation and fronted by a top notch cast who have you from the very start until the shocking climax.

'Nightmare Alley' is a co-production between TSG Entertainment and Double Dare You Productions

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