Film Review: Nightmare Alley (2021); Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Nightmare Alley (2021); directed by Guillermo del Toro

Warning: This review contains plot spoilers. If you have not already seen Nightmare Alley and don’t like spoilers, please don’t read any further (but feel free to bookmark this page to read later).

I think it’s safe to say that 2021 was most definitely The Year of the Remake. Out of the ten films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture this year, four of them fall squarely into that category: CODA, Dune, Nightmare Alley, and West Side Story. Nightmare Alley was previously adapted in 1947 from the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. The original adaptation, while not a financial success upon its initial release, has since grown in estimation and is now considered a classic of the film noir genre.

For readers unfamiliar with film noir, the term generally applies to crime films made during the 1940s and 1950s. These mostly black-and-white films were usually made on shoestring budgets with short production schedules to turn a quick profit for cash-strapped studios. Most of the time, they weren’t meant to be dazzling works of art. They were created as a form of popular entertainment for the masses of working-class moviegoers who were desperate to see people who looked and lived like them on the big screen.

These mostly black-and-white films were usually made on shoestring budgets with short production schedules to turn a quick profit for cash-strapped studios.

Film noirs tell stories of men and women who, for various reasons, find themselves in dire straits. These pictures are populated by rough characters from the wrong side of the tracks, or simply good people who’ve made the wrong decisions. Sometimes, they’re just people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time clutching a smoking gun. More often than not, their stories end unhappily.

Dripping with sin and vice, these films exposed the dark underbelly of post-World War II America and the glaring hypocrisy of its storied institutions. One thing that made them so brilliant is that they exposed the lies masquerading as truth on the sunnier sides of the street. They showed that life, at least real life, was lived in the shadows. And every shadow was a man with a gun.

Dripping with sin and vice, these films exposed the dark underbelly of post-World War II America and the glaring hypocrisy of its storied institutions.

Personally, I owe most of my noir education to TCM’s programming block Noir Alley, which is hosted by Eddie Muller (aka “The Czar of Noir”) and first launched in March 2017. Through Eddie’s intros and outros, I’ve learned that any good noir has several elements: a hero (or antihero) trying to outrun something from his past or present that is trying to bring about his destruction; a pervading sense of hopelessness in the face of insurmountable odds; a femme fatale who makes the hero feel safe until she doesn’t; and an event which seals the hero’s fate for all time. Nightmare Alley (both of them) has all of these.

When Nightmare Alley first opens, we meet Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) placing a bagged body beneath the floorboards of what we can presume is his own home and then lighting the joint on fire and splitting. As far as noir openers go, you can’t really do much better than that. At this point, we already know that Stanton (hereinafter referred to simply as Stan) is a desperate man trying to outrun something sinister. Who was burned along with the house? Why did Stan kill them? Or was he even the guilty party? Is it possible that he simply discovered them and disposed of the body to avoid being implicated in a crime for which he was innocent? In noir, anything is possible and nightmares usually come true.

In noir, anything is possible and nightmares usually come true.

Stan happens upon a traveling carnival and witnesses a geek show. For those of you who aren’t familiar with geek shows, a geek show was a carnival side show both separate from and part of the main festivities. It most often consisted of a single man, the “geek”, chasing live chickens around the inside of an enclosure. The climax of the show occurred when the geek caught the chicken or chickens and bit their heads off to the shock and awe of the audience. This grotesque spectacle was often used as a warm-up act for a larger “freak show” wherein people with visible disabilities or physical abnormalities were exploited for their labor and entertainment value. Many of these people, because of discrimination and prejudice, were forced to work in carnivals because there was no other work to be had for them. In order to provide for themselves, they were forced to participate in their own denigration.

Many of these people, because of discrimination and prejudice, were forced to work in carnivals because there was no other work to be had for them. In order to provide for themselves, they were forced to participate in their own denigration.

Freaks (1932); directed by Tod Browning

Side note: Tod Browning’s 1932 pre-Code horror film Freaks is perhaps the most honest and humane cultural document featuring people with disabilities who work or have worked in sideshow carnivals. While it was lambasted upon its initial release and even banned in some places for being too grotesque, it is now studied as a landmark film for its examination of carnival culture, its use of actual people with disabilities in on-screen roles, and even its Depression-era class politics. It is a cult classic and frequently appears in lists of the greatest films ever made. While its original intent is up for debate, watching it now evokes empathy rather than disgust, at least for yours truly.

Although it is evident how visibly disturbed Stan is at what he sees, he nonetheless secures a job with the carnival. It doesn’t pay much, but then again Stan doesn’t really need much. A man on the run really only needs one thing: to keep moving. The life of a carny provides him with just that. When the current geek becomes sick, Clem (Willem Dafoe) the carnival owner has Stan help him dump him in front of a clinic. It is then that Clem explains part of his racket to Stan. He finds men who have no money, no resources, no family to speak of, men who are chemically-dependent on alcohol, to be his geeks. He asks them no questions and promises them nothing but a temporary job and gives them alcohol laced with opium. He exploits their new dependence on the drug, giving it and withholding it as he sees fit, to debase and animalize them. All of this is done for the sake of the show.

A man on the run really only needs one thing: to keep moving. The life of a carny provides him with just that.

Stan befriends Madame Zeena (Toni Collette), a clairvoyant, and her husband Peter (David Strathairn), and assists with their act. He learns all he can from Peter and the gears inside his head begin turning for a show he can create of his own. He finds a partner for his future plans in the beautiful and alluring Molly (Rooney Mara), a fellow performer with whom he becomes infatuated and then falls in love. He convinces Molly to run away with him and craft a two-person act with which they can travel the world and behold all its wonders. She buys this pie-in-the-sky rhetoric much like any doe-eyed noir dame, and those of us in the audience (wherever we may be) are already shaking our heads in disapproval. We are screaming at her not to go but she doesn’t listen. They never do. The catalyst for their exit comes one night when Pete asks Stan to get him some liquor, and Stan (whether accidentally or not) gives him wood alcohol, which is poisonous and kills him. When a team of officers attempting to shut down the carnival arrive and Stan is able to cold-read one of them, convincing the man that his dead mother would want him to show mercy on them, we know that Stan and Molly are all but gone.

She buys this pie-in-the-sky rhetoric much like any doe-eyed noir dame, and those of us in the audience (wherever we may be) are already shaking our heads in disapproval. We are screaming at her not to go but she doesn’t listen. They never do.

Flash forward two years later and Stan has crafted quite the act as a mentalist, with Molly as his embittered and disillusioned assistant. The wealthy attendees of their Buffalo shows buy the lines Stan feeds them as if they’re candy. But where is the line between entertainer and charlatan? Better yet, who draws that line? If we harken back to the beginning parts of the film, we’ll remember Madame Zeena and Pete cautioning Stan against using the cold reading and coded language skills he’s acquiring to lead people on when they want to know about their dead loved ones.

But where is the line between entertainer and charlatan? Better yet, who draws that line?

It’s during one of their Buffalo performances that we meet Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She knows right away that Stan is nothing but a con, using sleights-of-hand and cheap parlor tricks to convince people he’s in touch with the beyond. She attempts to expose him for the charlatan he is, but she underestimates his skills. To punish her for lambasting him in front of his paying customers, he humiliates her by making accurate guesses about her childhood, the gun in her purse, and her utter lack of the power and agency she believes she possesses.

We find out that Dr. Ritter was under the employ of Judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill), who hired her to expose Stan. Now believing him to be a legitimate psychic, Judge Kimball offers him a large sum of money to act as a medium for him and his wife, allowing them to communicate with their deceased son. Molly is completely against it but Stan agrees anyway, and so he begins on the path of no return. Dr. Ritter invites Stan to her office (she is a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst), where she reveals to him her extensive recordings obtained during therapy sessions, all of which detail the deepest secrets of Buffalo’s elite. She tells him what he needs to know to make his session with the Kimballs successful, and all goes according to plan.

This is noir, though, so there’s always a flaw in the mechanism or a fly in the butter. Stan, not wanting Molly to discover the money he’s obtained through scamming Buffalo’s wealthy and powerful, takes it back to Dr. Ritter’s office and offers to split it with her. Dr. Ritter doesn’t want or need the money, it would seem, but agrees to keep it for him to help him avoid making Molly suspicious. No, instead she asks Stan to sit for a session with her, where she can probe the mysteries of his brain. It doesn’t take a genius (or psychic, for that matter) to guess what happens next.

Stan begins an affair with Dr. Ritter. In their analysis sessions, he spills his guts to her, admitting his guilt over Pete’s death as well as his father’s, whom he did in fact murder. We learn that his father was an alcoholic and we can deduce the level of abuse and neglect Stan suffered while growing up. At one point, Dr. Ritter offers Stan a drink of whisky, which he refuses and tells her that he never drinks. Ever.

Judge Kimball, being a satisfied customer, refers Stan to a dark and powerful man named Ezra Grindle. We learn that Grindle’s lover Dorrie died from the complications of a coerced back-alley abortion. Grindle is a tortured man forced to live with the consequences of his actions, and Dr. Ritter cautions Stan against engaging with him. Of course, Stan doesn’t listen and begins scamming Grindle. He delivers all sorts of fake missives from Dorrie, coming of course from the beyond. But Grindle isn’t satisfied with these placations. He wants Stan to conjure her physical form for him to see and talk to, ostensibly to beg for her forgiveness.

Stan’s plan is to involve Molly in the farce, having her play the part of Dorrie for Grindle’s catharsis. When she learns of the affair between Stan and Dr. Ritter, she leaves him. He begs her to stay, but she only agrees to help him one last time, in one more act. What Stan doesn’t plan for is the fact that Grindle won’t be satisfied with merely speaking to Dorrie (who is actually Molly), but will instead come ever closer to her until he embraces her. Before that, though, he unburdens himself of all his sins, revealing that he’s abused more women since Dorrie, citing his guilt as the motivator.

In a brief but telling aside, Anderson (Holt McCallany), Grindle’s faithful henchman, hears a news report on the radio telling about the gruesome murder-suicide of Judge and Mrs. Kimble. Having been told by Stan that they would all be reunited in death, Mrs. Kimble hastens the reunion with a gun.

Once Grindle embraces Dorrie, he discovers that the woman in front of him is not Dorrie at all, but someone he doesn’t know. He hits Molly viciously before he is brutally beaten to death by Stan. When Anderson attempts to come to Grindle’s rescue, Stan runs over him with their getaway car. When they get far enough away, Stan damages the car to make it appear as if it was stolen and it’s there that Molly leaves him, this time for good.

Stan makes his way to Dr. Ritter’s office to get his share of the money. A man on the run, after all, needs some cash to make his way. To his shock and dismay, Stan learns that Dr. Ritter has stolen the entirety of the money they earned together and is prepared to use the tapes of their sessions to prove he is a deranged individual. She tells him that she doesn’t need the money but that a man with his outsized ego needed to be taken down a peg. That’s not exactly how she phrases it, mind you, but you get the picture. Stan sees that all along he was merely a piece in a game he thought was his own.

Stan sees that all along he was merely a piece in a game he thought was his own.

In the climax of the film, Dr. Ritter shoots Stan in the ear, mocking him by shouting, “Am I powerful enough for you now, Stan?” bringing him back to their first meeting, where Stan told her how powerless she was in a room full of onlookers. Now, if only for herself, and if only in this small way, she reclaims her power. It’s a shame that she had to break doctor-patient privilege and violate every code of ethics to which a psychiatrist adheres to to do so, but we won’t quibble over semantics here. Dr. Ritter was the femme fatale all along, and Stan fell squarely into her clutches.

Now, if only for herself, and if only in this small way, she reclaims her power. It’s a shame that she had to break doctor-patient privilege and violate every code of ethics to which a psychiatrist adheres to to do so, but we won’t quibble over semantics here.

At this point, Dr. Ritter notifies security of an intruder. Stan attempts to strangle Dr. Ritter with a telephone cord but he’s unable to finish the job before security arrives on the scene. He manages to escape and makes his way onto a boxcar full of chickens. He becomes a vagrant, a homeless alcoholic. In the final scene, the pieces of the film come hauntingly together. We see Stan engage the proprietor of a carnival, one not unlike the one we saw him at in the beginning. He tries to sell himself as a mentalist, a clairvoyant. Perhaps he thinks he can make a living doing an act like Madame Zeena’s. The proprietor is disgusted by Stan, disgusted by his unkempt appearance and body odor, by the aura of shame and humiliation which covers him like a cloud. He nonetheless gives him a drink and offers him a job, a temporary job as a fake geek. It is at this point that Stan’s journey comes full circle. Buckling under the weight and magnitude of his piteous circumstances, he cries and laughs in a mixture of relief and hysteria, saying, “Mister, I was born for it.”

Buckling under the weight and magnitude of his piteous circumstances, he cries and laughs in a mixture of relief and hysteria, saying, “Mister, I was born for it.”

Very rarely do all the elements of a film work so effortlessly in concert together to make such an entertaining and artistic final product, but I think that can be said of Nightmare Alley. It avoids the pithy moralizations and heartfelt musings that would taint it (this, after all, is not a morality picture), and instead shows us a portrait of a soul set off on the wrong path toward a perilous and damned end. I enjoyed every minute of it.

It avoids the pithy moralizations and heartfelt musings that would taint it (this, after all, is not a morality picture), and instead shows us a portrait of a soul set off on the wrong path toward a perilous and damned end.

Nightmare Alley was released by Searchlight Pictures on December 17th, 2021 and is available to own, stream, or rent from various platforms and retailers.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Film Review: The Lost Daughter (2021); Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

The Lost Daughter (2021); directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Elena Ferrante is one of my favorite writers, so you can imagine how nervous I was when I first heard that The Lost Daughter (2008) was being adapted as a feature film. To give you some context, I have yet to watch a single episode of HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, which is based off Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. The series, which includes My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015), follows two friends, Elena and Lila, from the time they are little girls to when they are elderly women, through love, marriage, heartbreak, and not least of all the changing sociopolitical landscape of their neighborhood in Naples, Italy.

I tried to watch an episode when it first came out, but those books mean too much to me to have them sullied by a less-than-sensational adaptation. There’s a chance it’s decent, yes, but I am not that much of a gambler.

There is no better marriage than that between literature and film, but only when it’s done right.

Then I found out that Maggie Gyllenhaal would be helming the ship as both director and screenwriter of The Lost Daughter, and quelle intrigue, I was starting to feel a little hopeful. There is no better marriage than that between literature and film, but only when it’s done right. Finally, I heard that Olivia Colman was starring as the lead and that sold me. Colman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2018 film The Favourite, is a fierce, intelligent, and inimitable talent. She’s nearly unmatched.

Colman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2018 film The Favourite, is a fierce, intelligent, and inimitable talent. She’s nearly unmatched.

I mean, how many actors do you know who can hold their own (much less shine, as she did) when paired with someone like Sir Anthony Hopkins? The answer is not many, of course.

The idyllic scene is almost too idyllic, as if something dark and primordial is lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for the veil of darkness to ensnare whom it may.

In The Lost Daughter, Colman plays Leda Caruso, a professor and scholar of comparative Italian literature on holiday in Greece. The idyllic scene is almost too idyllic, as if something dark and primordial is lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for the veil of darkness to ensnare whom it may. The bowl of fruit in Leda’s rented apartment, at first sight so inviting, conceals rot. The gentle breezes blowing through her bedroom carry an insect to her pillow which startles her awake and stains her pillow with its blood.

The shifting tectonics of the fractured idyll create an atmosphere of unease which pervades the entire island.

The shifting tectonics of the fractured idyll create an atmosphere of unease which pervades the entire island. One day, a boisterous family interrupts Leda on the beach and asks her to move her lounge chair so they can all sit close together, unbroken. Owing them nothing and caught off-guard by their crassness, Leda (at first politely) tells them no. She is not interested in moving. Some viewers might watch this scene and think, Why doesn’t she just move? It’s not that big a deal, right? But it’s not really that simple, either. Some people’s lived experiences socialize them to be protective of any space they’re able to carve out for themselves. Naturally, they become fiercely protective of that space and those boundaries. As they should. As we all should.

Some people’s lived experiences socialize them to be protective of any space they’re able to carve out for themselves. Naturally, they become fiercely protective of that space and those boundaries. As they should. As we all should.

After her initial run-in with some of the members of the family, Leda makes a connection with Nina (Dakota Johnson) after Leda finds Nina’s daughter Elena when she goes missing on the beach. Then Leda does something that at the time seems strange—she steals Elena’s doll. Nina and the rest of her family search high and low for the doll, even going so far as to offer a reward for its safe return. Nina is worn threadbare. Elena is fractious and inconsolable. All the while, Leda is surreptitiously caring for the doll—cleaning it, buying it clothes, and caressing it much like one would an infant.

Nina is worn threadbare. Elena is fractious and inconsolable. All the while, Leda is surreptitiously caring for the doll—cleaning it, buying it clothes, and caressing it much like one would an infant.

Intermittent flashbacks show Leda as a young mother interacting with her daughters, Bianca and Martha. Anyone can see that she loves her daughters fiercely but lacks the mothering instinct often idolized in the popular culture. She feels smothered, bombarded. Every plea and poke strips her of something she’d much rather keep exclusively for herself. She’s like a beachcomber dodging scores of dive-bombing pelicans, a trapeze artist balancing on an ever-thinning wire. She cycles through irritation, rage, and agony like they’re outfits picked for different days of the week. When she begins getting recognized for her scholarship, she feels the pull toward escape like an iron filing to a magnet. Once a successful and handsome colleague (Peter Sarsgaard) gives her the professional validation she seeks as well as the sensual adulation she craves, the frayed apron strings are all but severed entirely.

She feels smothered, bombarded. Every plea and poke strips her of something she’d much rather keep exclusively for herself. She’s like a beachcomber dodging scores of dive-bombing pelicans, a trapeze artist balancing on an ever-thinning wire.

I won’t spoil the ending, mostly because I want everyone who reads this blog and everyone I know in real life to watch this film. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Olivia Colman have gifted us with one of the most honest depictions of motherhood ever seen in any medium. Many scholars have waxed poetic about the divided feminine for years, as anyone who’s had to listen to a lecture on the Madonna-whore complex can tell you. But, Gyllenhaal moves the dial beyond this simplistic dichotomy to encompass all the parts of womanhood seldom spoken about in tandem with motherhood. And she does so, with the help of Colman and Johnson, of course, without placing a value judgment on any of these planes of existence. These women are simply allowed to be, in all of their glorious complexity. That in itself is a tremendous achievement.

The Lost Daughter received a limited theatrical release beginning on December 17th, 2021 and began streaming on Netflix on December 31st, 2021.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Film Review: Spencer (2021); Directed by Pablo Larraín

Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales in Spencer (2021); directed by Pablo Larraín. Copyright 2021 Neon.

When we first meet Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana, she is running late to spend the Christmas holiday with other members of the royal family at Sandringham House, one of Queen Elizabeth’s sprawling country estates. She is desperate and harried as she drives aimlessly through the countryside, her frustration mounting when she can’t seem to find her destination. Discordant notes and flourishes, which characterize the film’s score, heighten the moment’s anxiety, thereby drawing the viewer into concert with Diana’s inner turmoil.

Discordant notes and flourishes, which characterize the film’s score, heighten the moment’s anxiety, thereby drawing the viewer into concert with Diana’s inner turmoil.

It will not escape the notice of the attentive viewer that the story of Diana chosen to be told by the filmmakers is that of the events surrounding the royals’ Christmas holiday in 1991. Sandringham House lies in close proximity to Park House, the abandoned neighboring estate which was Diana’s childhood home. Periodic flashbacks return Diana to that idyllic past, one which remains for her devastatingly out of reach.
Stewart’s Diana is a luminous and haunted creature, much like she was in real life. She is surrounded by the ghosts of all the lives she is not allowed to live and constrained by a future she can predict with startling accuracy. Throughout the course of the film, she is made at every turn to feel like she’s dancing on the knife edge of sanity, but to the working class viewer Diana appears to be the only sane one in the group of royals. I mean, how hard should it be to get someone to turn the heat on? And is it really asking too much to not want to be weighed before entering the hallowed premises like some Holstein cow at a livestock auction?

She is surrounded by the ghosts of all the lives she is not allowed to live and constrained by a future she can predict with startling accuracy.

To a far lesser degree, I feel as if I understand Diana’s plight. I know what it’s like to have seemingly everyone in the world wanting something from you that you feel ill-equipped to give, wanting nothing more for yourself than to be left alone. During one scene from the film, Diana is secretly eating when one of the Sandringham House caretakers accosts her and tells her that because of the recent media attention she’s attracted, she would do well to close her blinds while she changes clothes. It’s a little early to speculate, but if (and this is a big if) Stewart wins the Oscar for Best Actress, it will be in large part because of her retort, which I’m including below:

Their lenses are more like microscopes, really. And I’m the insect in the dish. See, they’re pulling my wings and my legs off one by one — making notes on how I react.

At every turn she is weighed and found wanting until there is nothing left of her but the image and the simulacrum of the person she wants to be.

Princess Diana was one of the first women castigated on a truly global scale by the mass media. Every grain of her private life was excavated and inspected for its potential value. The scales at Sandringham House become a metaphor for Diana’s entire existence: At every turn she is weighed and found wanting until there is nothing left of her but the image and the simulacrum of the person she wants to be.

It [Spencer] is a snapshot, a few pages torn from the diary of a life. It’s a deeply-felt character study of a woman flirting with the darkness in her own mind.

Whatever you want to call Spencer, it is not a biopic. It is a snapshot, a few pages torn from the diary of a life. It’s a deeply-felt character study of a woman flirting with the darkness in her own mind. There are parts of the film I wouldn’t hesitate to call Hitchcockian, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Stewart watched Kim Novak’s performance in Vertigo before filming a pivotal scene at the ruins of Park House.

All in all, Spencer is a delightfully stylish, if unsettling portrait of one of the most beloved, misunderstood, and mercurial figures of the twentieth century. Just give Stewart the freaking Oscar already.

Spencer was released on November 5th, 2021 and is now available to stream on YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Vudu.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.