Nightmare Alley (2021)

Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a grifter who’ll pull any con if it puts him on the path to riches. Given the Depression of the 1930s, work is hard to come by and so he ends up working with a travelling carnival. All the fun of the fair this is not, by modern standards, with emphasis on the freaks and geeks and almost every cast member has their own issues behind the scenes. Still, that’s not enough to stop Stan worming his way ever upwards.

This means – eventually – a bigger, more lucrative, and more dangerous con, presenting himself as a great psychic and medium to the rich and wealthy. But when psychiatrist Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) first tries to expose him, then agrees to work with him, can he ever trust her mysterious motives?

There was a year I took my shiny new cinema pass (oh, how I miss you!) and sat through all of the Oscar Best Picture nominees. Not all in the one day, of course, but still, I have never been so bored by movies! I think I realised then that all of these ‘good’ films are maybe not for me – I want entertainment over message or technical brilliance.

Still, there’s a couple in this year’s lot that I figured I’d give a go, and after Dune (which I liked, but not as much as I’d hoped – and hey, was partially bored!) this was my choice for least likely to be naff. And… yeah, I should have learned from how much I disliked The Shape of Water. Perhaps it’s not you, Guillermo, maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, part of the issue with Nightmare Alley is how little I’d read about it and thus went in with very wrong expectations. I expected noir – check – and thriller. Hmm, not so much. Instead I think I’d describe this as a dark morality tale. Any story that wants me not on the side of the main character already has a hill to climb, I think. There is a place for it, of course, but in entertainment values I don’t care for the mental gymnastics of following someone unlikeable in almost every way for a whole 2½ hours, wondering if we’re watching his redemption story or if he’s headed for ruin.

Really, the lack of clarity here is one of those things that I know others adore – especially in arty awards circles – but just doesn’t usually work for me. Some mysteries are solved, like what Stan was mysteriously walking away from at the start, but others – like Dr Lilith’s backstory – are completely untouched. It irks me, in a Chekov’s gun kind of a way. Did I miss something? Are you being arty and mysterious… and annoying?

Then there’s the tone. It’s dark and nasty and unpleasant on almost every level. I’m not sure there was any brightness in this movie. Again, just me, but I do not like coming out of a film feeling mentally grimy.

On the plus side, this looks great – in a ‘it’s dark and horrible but very well imagined’ kind of great. The cast are excellent. But I simply didn’t like it on any level and rather wish I hadn’t put any of it into my brain.

Maybe I should give Coda a go?

Released: 21st January 2022
Viewed: 4th February 2022
Running time: 150 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10 – mostly proving that I have no ‘taste’ in award-nominated movies 😉

nightmare alley poster

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