Nightmare Alley Review – Captivating, Entertaining, A Showstopper

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Nightmare Alley, from Searchlight Pictures, presents the story of the grift, trickery, and sleight of hand magic, in this retro style thriller that has a low-level hustler infiltrating high society hoping to pull one last score.

The film begins with an unknown stranger, whom we don't know yet, played by Bradley Cooper, pulling a corpse across the floor, and dumping it into a hole in the floor. He then strikes a match, walks out of the shack, and instantly the past is consumed in the fire behind him.


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He boards a train and when he wakes, he is at the end of the line. With nowhere to go, the past buried, he happens to wander into a traveling carnival. A long glance between the man and the carney's midget draws him, almost like a fish on the hook, into the unusual world of the absurd, unusual, those rejected by society who have found a home, a community, together.

Tonight, we meet Clem Hoatley, played by Willem DaFoe, who is luring the crowd in so they can decide, for themselves, is it man or beast. And for just 25 cent more they can witness the shocking man/beast as he kills the chicken, he tells the crowd, who gather closer to the ringed pit, where a caged man snorts, and grunts. Soon, the man/beast turns, and we see matted filthy hair, dirty, wild, staring with the eyes of insanity.

The stranger stays ringside as long as he can before the beautiful assistant shows up with the hat full of quarters.

A midwestern storm is brewing, and suddenly the Carnival is in tear down mode. Our nameless stranger is seen by the midget who call to the muscle, Bruno, played by Ron Perlman, who explains to the stranger the carnival looking for a few men. Suddenly we meet Stanton Carlisle. In the excitement of the teardown, the Wildman gets loose, Stanton finds him and after two exhibitions of his skills as a hired hand and a talent wrangler he is hired on.


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Soon we meet the Zelda the Seer, played by Toni Collette, her husband, Pete, played by David Strathairn, Major, the midget, played by Mark Povinelli, and Molly Kahill, the electric girl, played by Rooney Mara.

Stanton, whose past is in the ashes of a homestead, fits right in with the carnival grifters. A little different the usual hobo they pick up, everyone sees there is something about him. A little wiser, maybe then most, he understands how to read the crowd. Soon he is a constant companion to Zelda and Pete and is learning the ways to astonish the crowds with his mindreading skills.

Slowly, he becomes trusted and learns more than the skills of a mentalist. Step by step he learns the tricks of deception, and each day he understands this grift, this is the one that will take him from the midway to the big city.

Time goes by and Stanton and Molly fall in love, and they leave the carnival for a new life. The next scene we see Stanton, dressed in a tuxedo, the main attraction, with his lovely wife, Molly, hustling the power brokers, and high society in Chicago.


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While he has made good on his word to Molly to build a bigger and better grift, life for the lovebirds is wearing thin. Suddenly we meet the glamorous Dr. Lilith Ritter, played by Cate Blanchette, who is sure he is simply a swindler. She sets out to expose him. And in a room of Chicago's elite, he manages to convince them all of his gifts.

Even the lovely Dr. Ritter, who uses her psychiatry practice to slowly extract the secrets of the past, who we once believed she would fall prey to him, becomes his downfall with one drink.

What follows is a mousetrap as he fails to remember who really possesses the power and control, even with his skills, charm, ability to entice, mesmerize and hypnotize, in the end the con gets caught in his own trap.

Nightmare Alley is alluring, weaving together the stories of operators, smooth and otherwise, and exposes the corruption at every level.

Guillermo del Toro builds a pyramid of hustlers from the carnival grifts to the ballroom acts meant to mesmerize to the corporate power who, in this high stake of life and death, feel confident their position will hide every iniquity. The ensemble cast delivers strong character driven performances throughout.

Alluring, mesmerizing, Nightmare Alley, like the carnival pulls the viewer into the story and with expected twists and shocking turns and delivers an entertaining showstopper. A must see!


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Country: USA.

Language: English.

Runtime: 150minute.

Release Date: December 17, 2021.

Director: Guillermo del Toro.

Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan, William Lindsay Gresham.

Producer: Bradley Cooper, J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchet, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Willem DeFoe, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins, Mark Povinelli, Peter McNeil, Clifton Collins, Jr., Holt McCallany, Lara Jean Chorostecki, David Hewlett, Jim Beaver, Tim Blake Nelson.

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