REVIEW / FILM OPINION – Four years after being Oscar-winning, Guillermo del Toro returns with “Nightmare Alley”, a film noir carried by a dark and ambiguous Bradley Cooper.
The real monsters according to Guillermo del Toro
his whole career, Guillermo del Toro has worked around fantastic cinema. Whether with blockbusters like Blade 2, the Hellboy Where Pacific Rim, or more intimate films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, there are strange creatures. Creatures that are not necessarily antagonists, since, for the Mexican filmmaker, the real monsters are usually men. This was again the case with The Shape of Water (2018) where the romance between Sally Hawkins and an aquatic creature is undermined by a terrifying Michael Shannon.
After winning four Oscars for this last work (including best film and best director), del Toro continues his exploration of the dark side of men but in an even more concrete way with Nightmare Alley, adaptation of the novel The Charlatan by William Lindsay Gresham (already adapted to the cinema in 1947). For this, he sets aside the fantastic and pays homage to the films noir of Hollywood’s golden age. However, if in fact we only find humans here, the director still invokes a fantastic imagination. The one who accompanied the fairs sheltering deformed beings and other so-called monsters.
Nightmare Alley, a tribute to Hollywood film noir
The bearded woman, the strongest man in the world, the spider woman! We find all these beasts of fair in the first part of Nightmare Alley and we discover them through the eyes of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). A mysterious man who gets hired as a handyman in a group of carnies. With them, he will discover behind the scenes and tricks of this universe without real monsters but in which the inhumanity is already being felt.
Difficult in front of this first part of Nightmare Alley not to think of the excellent Freaks (1932) by Tod Browning which contrasted the outward ugliness of fairground phenomena with the appearance of a “normal” woman’s beauty. However, Guillermo del Toro moves away from it, if only by using “classic” faces behind make-up and costumes elaborated by the showmen. However, his portrayal of human cruelty remains the same. First through Clem (Willem Dafoe), who does not hesitate to lock up drunks to turn them into wild beasts. Before Stanton reveals his true nature.
Although seeming to have noble intentions to get him and the beautiful Molly (Rooney Mara) out of their precarious situation, this talker brilliantly played by Bradley Cooper will slowly lose himself after having elaborated a mentalist show. A show that will lead him to meet Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist more dangerous than she seems. This second part recalls this time black works like Insurance on death (1944) by Billy Wilder, or even Crime of Passion (1945) by Otto Preminger – one of the filmmaker’s announced influences.
Desperate Bradley Cooper
In line with The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro demonstrates real visual mastery. For this, he can count on the presence of the director of photography Dan Laustsen, with whom he is collaborating for the fourth time. But also on a cast in tune. Cate Blanchett excels as a femme fatale and is perfectly in place in 1940s New York. Although slightly set back, Rooney Mara is a no-brainer for the cinema of Guillermo del Toro. Special mention also to David Strathairn, overwhelming (despite little screen time) as an alcoholic at the end of his rope, while Richard Jenkins is offered a role of chilling cruelty.
Finally, bradley cooper finds a deep role and offers a remarkable performance – one of his best in a long time. After Licorice Pizza by Paul Thomas Anderson, the actor becomes particularly interesting again with this double-faced role. Like the writing of this ambivalent character (and terrifying supporting roles), del Toro constantly plays on pretense. On the idea of a permanent lie that affects everyone. Even Molly, however the most innocent, will let herself be taken on board in the manipulation game orchestrated by Stanton.
From then on, the filmmaker perhaps proposes his darkest film, with an extremely pessimistic (but true?) vision of the American dream. A work that sinks deeper and deeper into the darkness of the human soul. “I feel like it’s time to talk about…