‘Nightmare Alley’ is a dark-horse Oscar juggernaut


Jackson Piercy

Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) performing his mentalist schtick. Photo from imdb.com.

As far as I’m concerned, this is Guillermo Del Toro’s world, and we’re just living in it. I think we can say that since he’s cemented his legacy with 2017’s “The Shape of Water,” though I would argue that his dominance over his art form has been apparent since at least the turn of the century, in projects like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the ever-surprising “Blade II.” I can’t state how much I respect the man’s craft, and I am always baffled at what lengths he has to go to make his vision a reality when he’s not working with well-known properties like “Hellboy.” This is a labor of love, and that love bleeds through every frame of this picture.

Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) has left his old life behind, bringing meager supplies with him as he takes the bus to the end of the line. That line leads him to a traveling carnival that is short-staffed. While there, he gets in close with the entertainment: chiefly barker Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), strongman Bruno (Ron Pearlman), and mentalists Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Straithairn). From those two, Carlisle learns the trade of mentalism and demonstrates a remarkable ability to read people at a glance. Eventually, he takes his act, along with homegrown electric girl Molly (Rooney Mara), to the big city. There, he meets big-time psychiatrist Dr. Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who has dirt on all the richest cats in town. After being warned by everyone along his way that he should not do private “consultation,” rich recluse Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) promises big money to bring his long-dead lover back to the realm of the living.

Since we’re not exactly in the immediate shadow of technicolor, the genre of film noir has been muddied. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing, quite the opposite, but it has become a bit more difficult for the typical filmgoer to discern film noir from the rest. This, however, is undeniably noir. A cautionary tale of greed, capable female leads and the setting to boot. I think there’s an argument to be made that this is one of the finest of the genre — a genre that has such a concentration of quality as this. I don’t think there’s even a mediocre performance from anybody in front of or behind the camera. The acting is as close to perfect as you can get, the set design is immaculate, the writing is spectacular and the music is everything you could ask for. This is akin to seeing a solar eclipse, as every single cog in this machine is in perfect position and at the height of its powers.

I haven’t seen as much Oscar buzz for this picture as I’d like, but I’d be lying if I said I ever really cared for the Oscars past a surface level. What I will say is that every single award and nomination that this film receives in the immediate future is about as hard-earned as any film I’ve ever seen. You would be doing yourself a disservice by not watching this film.