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REVIEW: ‘Nightmare Alley’

What’s wrong here is not the movie's fault. It's Cate Blanchett's.

• December 20, 2021 3:00 pm

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There are two kinds of people in the world. First, there are the ones who think Cate Blanchett is the greatest actress of her time, capable of anything—not only winning an Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn but also blowing people away in a turn as… Bob Dylan (in a strange movie called I'm Not There that you should only see if you're pretentious and stupid), among many other lauded performances. Then there are the people who think she is one of the worst actresses who has ever lived—a wildly inauthentic overactor, whose second Oscar performance as a weak Xerox of Blanche DuBois in Woody Allen's horrid Blue Jasmine was wearisome in its emotional excess.

I am in the latter category—and, until recently, I confess I was pretty much the only person in that category.

So I was surprised to see a few critics join my dissenter's caucus as they sought to dissect just what they thought went wrong with the new movie Nightmare Alley. She plays a classic Hollywood femme fatale out of film noir—a high-class dame who is up to no damn good and looking to manipulate a sucker who doesn't know he's a sucker. She's dressed and styled and coiffed to look the part, which is fine. So was Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. But Blanchett's performance is so wildly overdone and overcooked that every moment she's on the screen Blanchett turns Nightmare Alley‘s tricky stew of nostalgic psychological horror into inedible tomato paste. The fact that others have also pointed to Blanchett as the ruination of Nightmare Alley—an otherwise gorgeous and fascinating piece of work—gives me hope that hers is an inflated reputation on the verge of being pricked like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon.

This is the first film made by Guillermo del Toro since his bizarre 2017 opus The Shape of Water—you know, that strange thing about how a Creature from the Black Lagoon was saved from McCarthyism by a mute cleaning lady in Baltimore. Not the worst movie that ever won a Best Picture Oscar—American Beauty still holds the title. But its blend of romantic comedy tropes, government conspiracy plots, and the woke sentimentalization of society's "outsiders" made The Shape of Water unquestionably the strangest recipient of the golden statuette.

Del Toro makes highbrow monster movies. Both physically and in his obsessions, he is the apotheosis of the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, an obsessional nerd who is extraordinarily skilled as a popular artist. With Nightmare Alley, for the first time, he has now made a psychological monster movie—the story of how a man becomes a freak. Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) attaches himself to a threadbare Depression-era traveling carnival somewhere in the Southwest, where he learns the art of mentalism and ends up ascending to swanky art-deco climes where he dazzles the wealthy with his seemingly supernatural skills.

Cooper is probably two decades too old for the part—in the 1946 novel on which the movie is based, Stanton is barely 21, and in the screenplay by del Toro and the movie blogger Kim Morgan, others keep referring to him as "kid" and "young man" when Cooper is clearly in his 40s. Still, he's so compelling an actor he makes a wonderful guide as he learns of the strangeness and sleaziness of carnival life—as well as the psychopathic hardness it takes to run a business that preys upon the hunger of ordinary people to gawk at others less fortunate even as they sacrifice their money for snake oil and occult blather.

Everything is jake between us in the audience and Nightmare Alley until Blanchett enters the scene as a therapist who knows the secrets of all the rich people in the city where Stanton is performing his act. She turns the movie ludicrous, as she has so many before. But this time there's no hiding it.

Published under: Movie Reviews