Nightmare Alley (*BP22)

I try not to go into movies with preconceived notions of the subject matter, but when I realized that Guillermo del Toro’s newest film Nightmare Alley was set in a carnival, the first thing that popped into my head was a quote from Austin Powers. “Only two things scare me: Nuclear war . . . and carnies. Circus folk. Nomads, you know. Smell like cabbage. Small hands.” 

I have to agree with Austin, because when there are circus folk around, you just know it’s going to eventually lead to geeks.

Wikipedia describes Nightmare Alley as “a neo-noir psychological thriller,” and it is certainly that. Noir means black and the color palette of the film is so dark that it sometimes reads as black and white, with all the bright tones usually associated with a carnival looking like they have been smeared with grime and filth. The film is a production designer’s dream, from the wonky funhouse angles and jars of fermented babies lining the walls to the electric chair that is designed to up the drama of the woman who is electrocuted nightly. Everything looks damp and a violent storm is always about to erupt. I don’t know if it smells like cabbage, but it sure looks like everything reeks of urine. This is a rough way to make a living, and the desolation of the backstage circus areas is reflected in the faces of the people who inhabit these spaces. 

That includes the geek. Early in the movie, there is a graphic depiction of what it would be like to be a raging, caged alcoholic who is flung live chickens in front of an audience and then bites their heads off. Not a profession one would want to end up in.

Bradley Cooper enters this bizarre world and quickly adapts to a variety of odd jobs. His general prettiness is immediately noticed by a fortune teller, and he starts to learn the secrets of her husband, the mentalist. The film spirals into darkness as he becomes a master at reading people and eventually ends up in a plot with Cate Blanchett to trick people into speaking to their dead. The cast is great and the story gripping, with an ending as horrifying as it is inevitable. 

I was mesmerized by this movie; it did not do well at the box office, but I wish that I had seen it on a big screen simply because the look of it was so spectacular. Of course, that would have made the geek scenes really big, so perhaps HBOMax was the way to go. It does not appear to have much of a chance at Best Picture, having won no other awards this season, which is a shame because I would count it among my top three favorites this year. Maybe just close your eyes when they bring out the chicken.

Side note: Why does Bradley Cooper always take roles where he ends up looking like he’s a complete disaster? The man is very handsome, and just once I would like to see him make it to the end of a film without pissing on himself.

Second Side note: I have been informed by a loyal reader that I neglected to mention that there is a brief flash of Bradley Cooper’s full frontal in this movie. Since I try to give the public what they want, I have added the category FlicksThatHaveADick to this review. Although that was not the original intent of this label, the customer is always right, so here you go. (It’s also been added to The Power of the Dog. Hello, Dr. Strange!)

The Popcorn Kernels of Truth give this film Three and a Half Kernels. It looks amazing, and as much as I am embarrassed to admit this, I simply could not look away from the geek biting the head off the chicken.

Categories: FlicksIWatchedOnNetflix, (I don’t have a category called FlicksIWatchedOnHBOMax, and also it doesn’t rhyme, but the film is NOT streaming on Netflix), FlicksThatYouShouldPick, FlicksIWantToLick, FlicksThatHaveADick