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This week for “Close-Up with Camenker”, Zach reviews . . . Nightmare Alley! (December 27, 2021)

Click here for the blurb and showtimes for NIGHTMARE ALLEY

One of my fondest memories of film viewing was on a Saturday evening in January of 2018 during the doldrums of winter. Some friends and I met up at Red River to see THE SHAPE OF WATER, which ended up taking home the coveted Best Picture Oscar and three other trophies later that season. I walked in with mixed expectations and walked out in total awe, riveted by the beauty of the production and its intricate landscape. The experience still remains one of my favorite ones ever at the movies and stands out as one of my top at Red River.

THE SHAPE OF WATER owes its genius to director Guillermo del Toro, a multitalented and incredibly unique artist with a zest for creativity. As a result of my adoration for THE SHAPE OF WATER, my expectations were quite high for his latest film, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, which just finished screening at Red River. Like many films that succeed a director’s masterpiece, NIGHTMARE ALLEY does not nearly match THE SHAPE OF WATER, but it does rise to the occasion in many ways if you keep your focus in the right places.

The story of a vagabond who quickly takes on the role of a carny, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is based on a 1946 novel of the same name that was adapted for the screen first in 1947. Despite being a classic film fanatic, I had admittedly never heard of the original nor have I seen it, which embarasses me to say as I typically screen the original before watching a remake. All that aside, del Toro’s adaptation of the story alongside his writing partner (and now wife) Kim Morgan meets with great success for the 21st century eye.

Nightmare Alley

With a superbly experienced ensemble at the forefront and some of the best visual artists in Hollywood, del Toro takes the audience on a multi-year journey through carny Stan Carlisle’s meteoric rise to power and success amidst the backdrop of World War II. As he leaves behind what appears to be his long-time home at the start of the film, Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper, is not shy about jumping on the carnival bandwagon right away, adventuring into the traveling circus of freaks, geeks, and the misunderstood.

The film, which runs at just about two and a half hours, lags in what I would deem its first act. While Carlisle’s backstory, never divulged deeply, is fascinating as are the carnies that he meets along the way, some cohesion is missing. It’s almost as if del Toro and Morgan try to do too much by introducing us to so many characters, some of whom have little to no significance in the long-run of the movie. Nonetheless, Cooper is excellent, carrying the story with a subdued undertone that eventually subsides as his character grows into the con man that he has likely always been.

Among the strong ensemble, we meet many characters, including Clem, Zeena, and Pete, played by Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, and David Straithairn respectively. Dafoe entertains with his usual panache while Collette and particularly Straithairn really rise to the occasion of their small but mighty roles, serving as Carlisle’s inspiration as he joins their act. Rooney Mara, understated as always, is also present as Carlisle’s love interest Molly, who eventually joins him as he goes on the road in the second act when the two begin a duo psychic routine.

While the first act does lag, del Toro’s brilliance as a director does anything but lag. In fact, the highlight of the film’s first 50 minutes or so is del Toro’s recreation of the carnival atmosphere, which is ripe with sets, costumes, and color palettes that make you feel you are traveling with the circus. This does not subside at all when Carlisle and Molly arrive to entertain the elite circles of New York City. The shift from the rough and raw looks of the circus to the posh elegance of 40s NYC is a huge accomplishment in and of itself.

In the second act, we meet Dr. Lilith Ritter, played by the magnificent Cate Blanchett, who becomes a central part of the narrative surrounding Carlisle and Molly’s psychic routine. A psychologist herself who exudes the Freudian psychoanalysis that would have permeated that era, Ritter’s character is as fascinating as Carlisle’s, though much more robust from the get-go. What unfolds as the film approaches its final act, undoubtedly its most exciting, is a mix of styles, themes, and ideas that pay homage to the era in the most del Toro way possible. Richard Jenkins, a fan favorite of del Toro’s, also becomes a substantial player to the dynamite ensemble.

I’ll leave it to you to see the film yourself to better understand what unfolds as major plot points in the second and third acts of the piece, but I can guarantee it will intrigue, surprise, and sicken you all in one. Carlisle and Ritter become quite a fascinating pair and the final outcomes of the movie truly lead you to many questions, including what type of power Carlisle sought, whether or not he always was a con man, and what it means to be a con man.

I know personally that del Toro takes his inspiration from many artists of the past and that he involves his own incredible team of artists in that decision making. To get inside his mind would be fascinating in and of itself, but in knowing what I do about his style, I see his inspiration here as being a mix of film noir, psychological thriller, and pulp fiction.

That aside, I cannot help but think of director Douglas Sirk, who del Toro paid homage to in his own Oscar acceptance speech for directing THE SHAPE OF WATER. Known for his lush melodramas of the 50s that were deemed insignificant upon release, Sirk’s films contain subliminal themes and messages that audiences initially wrote off. One scene in Dr. Ritter’s office where Carlisle is sprawled on the couch with the snow falling in the background reminds me so much of the Sirk film ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS despite the thematic dissimilarities. While I see more of the 40s noir homage in this piece, I wouldn’t be shocked if del Toro again tipped his hat to Sirk.

I also wouldn’t be shocked if this film sinks in more and more with time, or if it simply fades into oblivion years from now. For me, its length and initial scatteredness affect it in the long run while its overarching production value and top ensemble outweigh the negatives. This is a film at the hands of a master and that master is Guillermo del Toro.

Stay tuned for Volume XV of “Close-Up with Camenker,” which will return on Friday, January 14. 

Click here to learn more about Zach Camenker!

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