[Screen It]


(2021) (Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: An ambitious man takes the deception he learns as a carny to greater acclaim but also greater risks.

It's the late 1930s and after committing a heinous act, Stan Carlisle (BRADLEY COOPER) comes across a carnival run by Clem Hoately (WILLEM DAFOE) and eventually gets a low-level job there. But it allows him to meet and befriend other carnies such as tarot card reader Zeena Krumbein (TONI COLLETTE) and her washed-up, alcoholic magician husband, Pete (DAVID STRATHAIM), who know how to read and manipulate people to make their marks believe they have psychic powers.

Pete eventually teaches Stan the tricks of the trade when the newcomer isn't wooing Molly Cahill (ROONEY MARA) who does an electrically charged act, with Stan's interest in her not sitting well with strongman Bruno (RON PERLMAN) who promised Molly's late father he'd keep watch over her.

But Stan has greater ambitions than staying with the carnival and it's not long before he and Molly become a couple and leave for greener pastures, namely clubs in the big city where he can use what Pete taught him to con the elite, with Molly as his assistant. His act draws the attention of sophisticated psychologist Lilith Ritter (CATE BLANCHETT), and her knowledge of and recorded conversations with wealthy clients has him concoct a mutually beneficial arrangement with her.

But she warns against using his con on Ezra Grindle (RICHARD JENKINS), a wealthy, powerful, and possibly dangerous man with a tortured soul who falls for Stan's skills, unlike his bodyguard, Anderson (HOLT McCALLANY), who casts a wary eye on the outsider. As Stan continues with his ruse, it's uncertain how far he'll go.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10

Growing up in the 1960s and '70s, I was fully entranced by sideshow attractions at the state fair and other places we went as families. Aside from an "exotic reptile" one that traveled around in a trailer, I don't recall ever getting to go into one, although it's possible I was offered the opportunity but was too scared to go inside and see the bearded lady, the far hairier "wolf man" and other such "oddities" that populated such attractions.

Of course, what helped with their mystery was the story -- however brief it might have been -- that the barker outside used to try to lure people inside. And as we all know, when it comes to entertainment in whatever shape or form it appears, it's all about the story. And that's the thing I miss with most movies -- being transported away the way a novel can carry its reader to the point that you feel like you're there, fully in it with the characters.

Both of those are reasons why I fell hook, line, and sinker for "Nightmare Alley," the latest film from acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro (who's made a living creating captivating tales such as "The Shape of Water," "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Devil's Backbone"). Granted, the film is based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham (that I have not read) and which served as the basis for the 1947 film with the same title (that I have not seen).

Yes, a lot of other movies are based on other books, but they somehow lessen or entirely eliminate that "transported away" experience. Here, writer/director del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan manage to keep that sensation alive for two and a half hours as they whisk us away to a bygone era when such sideshows were part of the big attractions at carnivals.

Accompanied by great tech credits (award-worthy cinematography, editing, production design, costume design, sound, etc.) all around, the story revolves around Stan (Bradley Cooper) who we first see dragging a wrapped body across the floor before lighting it and the house it's in on fire.

He then hits the road, later spots a little person, and follows him back to a carnival where he gets an entry-level job working for Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe) who informs him that everyone there doesn't care whatever he might have done in the past.

Stan quickly gets to know those folks including strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) who's protective of young Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) despite her ability to harness electricity (her gig at the carnival) and Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn), a married couple who specialize in cold readings of people and their "psychic" ability to look inside them. While Stan is romantically drawn to Molly, he's likewise entranced by Zeena and Pete's abilities, something he quickly picks up and then uses to diffuse a police raid of the carnival.

His newfound "gift" then sends the story in another direction that eventually involves a big city psychologist (Cate Blanchett) who he views as essentially doing the same thing he does, and then some of her clients (including an unsavory one played by Richard Jenkins) whose supposedly confidential admissions to her in past therapy serve as usable clues and cons for Ron to use to extract moola from them.

Although the flick isn't full-out horror like del Toro often plays in, there are similar elements he utilizes here to mesmerizing effect. Part cautionary tale, part pulp noir, the offering fully entranced and yanked me away into its world from start to finish.

Masterfully told, directed, and acted, "Nightmare Alley" took me back to my childhood and those sideshow attractions that tantalized me. This time, I got to go in and certainly got my money's worth and then some. One of the best of 2021, the film rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed December 10, 2021 / Posted December 17, 2021

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