Nightmare Alley (2021) – Guillermo del Toro

Based on the novel of the same name del Toro’s latest is a lush, shining example of the noir genre, and features strong performances and visuals. I loved how faithful it was to the spirit of the novel, there were a few necessary changes, but none that change any of the overall arcs for any of the characters in the film.

We follow Stan (Bradley Cooper), a man with a past, who finds himself working in a travelling carnival, where he slowly learns the craft of mentalism, and is able to give some of the attractions an exciting new spin.

He learns from Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn) before betraying them, and taking off with Molly (Rooney Mara) to perfect his own mentalist act, which begins to dip into spiritualism, and brings Stan into contact with a devious psychiatrist, Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who helps him con a wealthy man, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).

Stan is faithful to only one thing, himself, everything, and everyone else is up for grabs, and consequently, while he is working on Grindle to admit he is a sinner, Stan’s soul is darker than anyone’s and that is going to cost him before story’s end, which, like the all-seeing eye, a recurring motif and image throughout the film, is circular.

del Toro’s style, and use of colors permeates the screen. The art deco style, and the fashions of the forties work brilliantly with the lighting, and photography, bringing the film noir a new life (a resurgence arguably added by Matt Reeves’ The Batman) and layering meaning on every shot of the film.

Noir has always been one of my favorite genres, and combining that with del Toro, one of my favorite directors, this one was a win-win for me. Everything about this film works for me. I love the performances, I love that none of the characters, except for perhaps Molly, have no redeeming qualities. Each of them has a darkness, a secret, an angle that they are using against everyone else.

And del Toro’s attention to detail, and the gorgeous set design made this one a must watch for me. Having already read the book I was happy to dive into this, to see how it was interpreted by such a masterful director and talented cast.

I loved seeing del Toro regular Ron Perlman make an appearance, and I delight in the fact that the film secured an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. del Toro is a master craftsman, and every one of his films is not only a work of art, but an experience to be enjoyed over and over, peeling back layers and discovering things with each viewing.

For me, Nightmare Alley was a stunning watch, and I loved that it delivered us the same ending as the book. As if there could have been a different one.

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