2 Hours 30 Minutes, R for Face-Smashing and Eating Live Poultry
Fair Value of Nightmare Alley: $18.00. This remake stands tall and proud as the equal of the original 1947 noir classic, yet is still distinct and memorable in wholly different ways.
What in this world is so depraved and terrible as the Geek? That is one epithet that has really lost it’s sting. But in the era of the Great Depression, a geek was a reference not to an antisocial fanboy but rather to a depraved and feralized man that was reduced to degrading acts for public amusement.
This is a film about the exploitation and degradation of man, cast within the lurid lights of the carnival show. If one could somehow watch both Guillermo Del Toro’s film and the Edmund Goulding film simultaneously, one would witness a masterpiece. It’s an incredible feat to achieve a remake that succeeds at every one of the original’s failures while failing at all of the original film’s successes, but that is what Del Toro has done. He has made a completely complimentary remake, one that is bright where the other was dark, riveting where the other was dull, languid where the original was fast.
Popcorn! Get your popcorn! A young and homeless man named Stanton Carlyle (Tyrone Power/Bradley Cooper) finds his way to working for a traveling circus. He works, lies, and cons his way from being a roustabout to an act, to being a famous magician, until he reaches too far, conspiring with a sinister psychiatrist Dr. Ritter (Helen Walker/ Cate Blanchett) to defraud the wrong tycoon.
Tyrone Power or Bradley Cooper? I was cold on Bradley Cooper’s performance at first, but is it ever a slow burn performance, one that catches on fire when he connects with the duplicitous doctor. Tyrone Power was more of a MacBeth, selling all of the sweat and anxiety; Cooper’s performance is instead about the nuance, the duplicity. It’s a performance not unlike that of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master; we see a cipher build themselves into a person before deconstructing themselves again through the turmoil of the film.
Run Away to Join the Circus: Where the new Nightmare Alley really soars is on the back of a crackerjack supporting cast. Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, and Tim Black Nelson all get great scenes along Stanton’s road through rise and ruin.
Authenticity vs. Nostalgia: Edmund Goulding’s version is a exercise in expressionism: stark, fast, austere and brutal. And it has more of a verite: the cast feel like people who actually know circus folk, and the sets have a realism the modern version lacks.
At the same time, Guillermo’s lush exterior design makes the modern version more dreamlike, more feverish. It’s the film of a collector, an idealized and exaggerated realm, a circus as seen through childhood memories.
Who is this film perfect for? It’s another beautiful fairy tale for adults from Guillermo Del Toro. If you like his films, this is near his best (though not quite as powerful as Pan’s Labyrinth).
Who should skip this film? When I say it isn’t the kind of film that Hollywood makes any more, what I mean is that this is a film that takes the time to build the characters and their dynamics. If you like dialogue and human drama and psychology, this film is electric; but like Villeneuve’s Dune, it lopes, it does not sprint. The pressure and the suspense and atmosphere all take a while to build underneath the grand guignol aesthetics. Those with short attention spans will get lost.