Nightmare Alley brings the star power: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe…I could go on. And in Act I, it does a great job creating dramatic tension, with an intensely cinematic take on a Midwest carnival in 1941. A circus where side shows are the main event and the animals are human. This part of the film wonderfully weaves directing, acting, screenwriting, art direction, cinematography, hair, makeup, wardrobe, special effects — the whole shebang —into an intriguing portrait. The homages fly: Days of Heaven, Strangers on a Train, La Strada, Wings of Desire…and yet it also seems all its own.
But then ACT II happens, and the waves of tension and intrigue flatline.
By ACT III the film is a mockery of itself and a bathroom break is in order.
This is the 5th year of the LnD Report and if you look through the archive you’ll find many circumstances where the sum of its impressive parts didn’t achieve the total of a great film. What went sideways in Nightmare Alley? As D pointed out, the foil is not strong enough, particularly in terms of motivation. Also, by the time of the denouement, there are no characters for the audience to care about. The most interesting characters are left far behind. As one example, Willem Dafoe has more of an opportunity to show his dramatic range in Spider-Man: No Way Home, than he has playing Clem Hoatley, the carnival boss and geek wrangler in Nightmare Alley.
According to our friend F, the 1946 novel is much better. So that would be worth checking out. I was also reminded of a great title I read in a previous life, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Or simply pop in a DVD, Blu-ray or stream Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece, Freaks, if you are jonesing for an emotional carnival drama.