Scene it: Meet ‘Nightmare Alley,’ a nightmare of an Oscar nominee

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in the film “Nightmare Alley.” (Photo courtesy of Kerry Hayes/20th Century Studios)

I set out to watch “Nightmare Alley” because of its position alongside other notable titles in the 2021 list of Oscar nominees for Best Picture. After spending the requisite two and a half hours watching the film, I found “Nightmare Alley” rather hollow, like an empty locket: pretty on the outside, but its substance ultimately yielding nothing.

Actually, that’s a lie. I came away from the movie with diminished spirits, heightened restlessness and an overwhelming aversion to chicken. Also, Bradley Cooper’s blue, blue eyes. But little else. 

And even what little I did reap from “Nightmare Alley” disappeared with a good night’s rest, happiness restored and poultry tolerable — even desired — again. 

A good movie sticks with you for a long time. The storyline might play around in your head for a few days, and even months later, it’ll jump to the surface of your thoughts, unbidden, at the slightest reminder. 

For example, just the other day walking to the dining hall, my friend and I heard the faintest sounds of snapping, the fragments of a distant show tune melody emanating from an unspecified point behind us. Slowly, the tumult increased. Though wary, we did not turn around. Suddenly, we were surrounded, enveloped in the music. 

The two individuals, likely involved in musical theater in some capacity, did not falter once in their routine when passing us. One went to the left of us, springing onto a low brick wall while sustaining a rhythmic snap; the other passed by my right, singing in a bright, clear voice and maintaining a jaunty step. 

We could do nothing but watch, slightly stunned, as the performers continued on their merry way, young, happy and carefree, taking the music with them. 

My friend instantly looked at me and said, “We just got attacked by the Jets.”

No possible description could be more accurate. The timeless story of the rival New York gangs and the classic star-crossed lovers separated by circumstance, all set to a ridiculously catchy musical number, renders “West Side Story” utterly unforgettable. No matter how long ago you watched it, or which version you saw (the frankly unsurpassed 1961 original, or the admittedly touching 2021 Spielberg remake, also up for Best Picture in 2021), the story stays with you. Especially when accosted by snapping youths. 

However, I rest quite confident in the certainty that no such recollections will occur with “Nightmare Alley.” In fact, it is likely to join that blur of unremarkable media I’ve consumed in the recesses of my mind, joining ranks with the likes of “Rebecca” (2020), an unremarkable, yet unbearable mockery of the original book, and “Don’t Look Up” (2021) — it needed to be made, but wow, does that brash satire really grate on your nerves after two hours.

After an extremely slow first half hour, “Nightmare Alley” did eventually pick up the pace. Its plot forced my attention, and I suppose one cannot rush a slow-burning noir thriller. But there was no foothold to sink my mind into. The disturbing elements were not disturbing enough, the soundtrack was entirely unnoticeable and the main characters were too morally gray. 

That is, the protagonist, Stanton, is a little too unlikeable to feel particularly bad for, while the antagonist, Lilith Ritter, is a little too sympathetic, so as to verge on the scornfully weak side of villainy. On the flip side, the supporting characters are entirely one-dimensional. Virtuous Molly, Stanton’s lover, adheres to a rigid moral compass in the most insipid, doe-eyed of manners. Meanwhile, the amoral billionaire Ezra Grindle maintains the icon of boring scum without exception. 

Throughout the film, the image of three powerful women tripping over themselves to seduce Bradley Cooper’s character — even as I, the viewer, would readily make the fourth — invokes the sharp irritation that usually accompanies the portrayal of women reducing themselves at a man’s behest, especially when the story is written by a man. 

To round it off, the ending was cyclical in nature, a technique which, in this instance, left me feeling as though nothing had happened, both in the movie and in myself. When I watch movies, I want something I can bite off and chew for a while; “Nightmare Alley” simply dissolves without a taste. 

I was interrupted in the middle of watching “Nightmare Alley,” and knew I could not rest until I found out what became of the characters, which is usually a good sign; however, I attribute this more to a personal dislike of unfinished business rather than the natural interest that would spring from a genuinely enthralling story. It was aesthetic enough — I love a good spooky carnival setting, and this film visually reminded me of “American Horror Story: Freak Show” mixed with “The Great Gatsby” (2013). 

That said, “Nightmare Alley” gave me all the mental excitement of a blank sheet of ice: cold and unimpressionable. 

But hear, “When you’re a Jet … you’ll never forget,” and you’ll probably start whistling, too, even against your better inclinations. I know which movie I’ll be rooting for in the Best Picture category at the upcoming Oscars, and it has a good deal more song and dance than “Nightmare Alley.”

Rorye Jones PO ’23 finally got around to finishing “Titanic” and can now reasonably call herself TSL’s TV and film columnist. Yes, she did cry (mainly for the violinists).

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