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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Mar 12, 2022



‘NIGHTMARE ALLEY’ is directed by Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican director who won the Oscar best director award for “The Shape of Water”, a fantasy romance between a woman and a man-fish. 

Why he chose “Nightmare Alley” as his follow up film after his Oscar win is beyond us. 

This is based on the 1946 novel by William Gresham which has already been filmed before in 1947 starring Tyrone Power. 

It’s described as a noir or dark film, a genre with questionable characters and stylized shady lighting effects that became in vogue in American crime dramas after World War II, like “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” that both starred femme fatales like Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner. 

The film starts in 1939 with lead character Stan (Bradley Cooper, in his first big role since “A Star is Born”) dumping the body of a dead old man in a hole on the floor, lighting it up then burning their whole rural house down.

He then boards a bus that stops at a local carnival, the kind of peryahan featuring freak shows prevalent in our neighborhood during the holiday season and fiestas. 

Stan witnesses a show where a crazy man called geek eats a chicken alive in front of the viewers. He quickly becomes friends with the carnival owner, Clem (Willem Dafoe), who hires him as a carnival worker. 

He then meets Madame Zeena (Toni Colette), the troupe’s resident clairvoyant, along with her husband Pete (David Straithairn), a mentalist who has a secret book that can make him communicate with the dead. 

Madame Zeena is quickly attracted to the handsome Stan and tinkers with his naked body while he’s soaked in a bathtub. 

Stan falls in love with a girl, Molly (Rooney Mara), who does an act where she gets repeatedly electrocuted. 

Stan gives Pete a forbidden kind of alcoholic drink and he dies. He then steals his secret book and he asks Molly to leave the carnival with him.


wo years later, we see Stan in a hotel act performing to rich patrons as a psychic, with Molly as his assistant. 

A psychiatrist, Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchette), tries to expose him as a fraud but he turns the tables on her and embarrasses her when he correctly predicted that her bag contains a pistol. 

But eventually, they become lovers and even partners in crime when Lilith gives Stan access to her patients’ records so he can obtain information with which he can then con them with his fake supernatural abilities. 

He earns big time and becomes more greedy, leading to some tragic and lamentable results.  

The film is very handsomely mounted and beautifully crafted, with great set and costume design perfectly captured by the luxuriant cinematography that is just glorious to behold. 

It’s really superb on a technical level, but the film runs for two and a half hours and you can feel that the pompous narrative is just  really overstretched. 

It’s as if del Toro lost grip of his material and divided the film into two halves: the first set in the muddy world of the carnival and the second half set in the glitzy world of filthy rich people who are nursing deep emotional wounds about their dearly departed loved ones.

In the end, it all amounts to a fabulously stylized enterprise but is really quite shallow and has no heart at all. 

From the start, the film’s hero cannot get our sympathy because we know he is a con man, a bad person who’s doing very bad things, like killing his own father. Like other noir characters, Stan is someone who is amoral and pays a high price for it in the end.

His big fault is he just doesn’t know when to stop, even if he already earned a lot. 

So when his descent into humiliation and degradation ultimately happens, and he’s offered the despicable job of a geek, our reaction is: serves you right! After all, he is truly a scoundrel!

The movie is most certainly not a crowd pleaser by any stretch of one’s imagination. Stan and Lilith are surely not likable characters but in fairness, to Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, they both give very competent performances. 

Bradley is quite old for the role at 47, but no doubt he still has a very charismatic presence on screen even when he’s playing a heartless character.

As the scheming psychiatrist, Cate intentionally overacts. She liberally chews the scenery in a hilariously dark manner as the double-crossing femme fatale. 

Willem Dafoe, Toni Colette and Rooney Mara give wonderful support, but their roles are just not as substantial as Cate.