2022 Academy Awards: ‘The Power of the Dog’ is the top nominee

February 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

With 12 nods, the Netflix drama “The Power of the Dog” is the top nominee for the 94th Annual Academy Awards, which will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on March 27, 2022. ABC will have the U.S. telecast of the show. The nominations were announced on February 8, 2022, by Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Jordan.

The nominations for “The Power of the Dog” are Best Picture; Best Actor (for Benedict Cumberbatch); Best Director (for Jane Campion); two nods for Best Supporting Actor (for Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee); Best Supporting Actress (for Kirsten Dunst); Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Cinematography; Best Production Design; Best Original Score; and Best Sound. The movie, which is set in 1925 Montana, is about a rancher family that is plagued by jealousy, toxic masculinity and homophobia. Dunst and Plemons are a couple in real life (and they portray a married couple in “The Power of the Dog”), so their nominations are a rare situation where a co-star couple received Oscar nominations for the same movie.

The other contenders for Best Picture are Focus Features’ “Belfast,” Apple Studios’ “CODA,” Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up,” Janus Films/Bitters End’s “Drive My Car,” Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Dune,” Warner Bros. Pictures’ “King Richard,” United Artists/Focus Features’ “Licorice Pizza,” Searchlight Pictures’ “Nightmare Alley” and 20th Century Studios’ “West Side Story.” The 2021 remake of “Dune” had the second-highest number of Oscar nominations this year (10 nods), followed by “Belfast” and “West Side Story,” which had seven nods each. (Click here to read Culture Mix’s reviews of all these movies that are nominated for Best Picture.)

The awards are voted for by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For the 2022 ceremony, eligible movies were those released in the U.S. cinemas in 2021. As of 2022, the Academy is requiring the Best Picture category to have 10 nominees. From 2009 to 2021, the rule was that there could be five to 10 movies per year nominated for Best Picture.

Snubs and Surprises

Lady Gaga and Jared Leto in “House of Gucci” (Photo by Fabio Lovino/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

It’s been an unpredictable awards season for the Best Actress category. Lady Gaga of MGM/United Artists’ “House of Gucci” has been getting nominated at every major award ceremony for movies—except for the Academy Awards, where she was widely predicted to get a nomination. Meanwhile, Kristen Stewart of Neon’s “Spencer” was chosen by many awards pundits as an early frontrunner for a Best Actress Oscar, but Stewart’s performance in “Spencer” ultimately failed to get nominations at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the BAFTA Film Awards—two major award shows that often indicate who will be Oscar winners and Oscar nominees. Despite those snubs, Stewart scored her first Oscar nomination for “Spencer,” when many awards pundits counted her out of the Oscar race because of the SAG and BAFTA snubs. Stewart’s nomination for Best Actress is the only Oscar nod for “Spencer.”

The category of Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress had a few snubs and surprises. Caitríona Balfe of “Belfast” was getting nominated at every major award show for movies—except for the Academy Awards. Instead, “Belfast” co-star Judi Dench got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, even though Dench was passed over in this category for “Belfast” at other major award shows. For “The Power of the Dog,” Best Supporting Actor nominee Smit-McPhee was widely predicted to get an Oscar nomination, but “Power of the Dog” co-star/Oscar nominee Plemons failed to get a Best Supporting Actor nod at other major awards shows, except for the BAFTAs. Meanwhile, Jared Leto of “House of Gucci” was shut out of an Oscar nomination for the Best Supporting Actor category for this movie. Leto has been nominated at other award shows for “House of Gucci,” which got an expected Oscar nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling that includes the much-talked-about prosthetic makeup that Leto wore in the movie. (It’s the only Oscar nod for “House of Gucci.”)

Movies that have been getting awards or nominations elsewhere were completely snubbed by the Academy Awards. They include the Netflix drama “Passing,” the Focus Features comedy “The French Dispatch,” the Netflix drama “The Harder They Fall” and the A24 drama “C’mon C’mon.” Movies that win the Academy Award for Best Picture always get a screenplay Oscar nomination too. That’s why “Nightmare Alley” and “West Side Story” (which are both remake films) have little or no chance to win Best Picture, since both movies failed to get Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay. In the category of Best Film Editing, “Belfast” and “West Side Story” were snubbed, even though both movies were widely predicted to get Oscar nods in that category. And although “Dune” earned a massive 10 Oscar nominations, one of them wasn’t for director Denis Villeneuve in the Best Director category, although he did get an expected Best Adapted Screenplay nod for co-writing the movie.

Some of the biggest surprise nominations came from international films. Neon’s Danish movie “Flee” (directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen) made Oscar history for being the first movie to get Oscar nominations for Best International Feature Film, Best Animated Feature and Best Documentary Feature. While many pundits had floated the possibility that these three nominations would happen for “Flee,” many people predicted that “Flee” would get one or two Oscar nominations. “Flee” is an Afghan refugee’s first-hand account of his life, which is depicted in animated form. He currently lives in Denmark and used an alias in the movie to protect his privacy. Neon’s Norwegian drama “The Worst Person in the World” was expected to get a nomination for Best International Feature Film, but a surprise nomination came when the movie got an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay. “The Worst Person in the World” was written by Joachim Trier (the movie’s director) and Eskil Vogt.

Diversity and Inclusion

Aunjanue Ellis, Mikayla Bartholomew, Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Daniele Lawson in “King Richard” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Power of the Dog” director Campion made Academy Awards history, by becoming the first woman to get two Oscar nominations for Best Director. She was previously nominated for 1993’s “The Piano,” but lost the award to “Schindler’s List” director Steven Spielberg. It’s a rematch of sorts for Campion and “West Side Story” director Spielberg, since they’re both nominated again for Best Director in the same year. In another male-dominated category (Best Cinematography), Ari Wegner of “The Power of the Dog” became the second woman ever to get an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. The first woman to break this Best Cinematography gender barrier was Rachel Morrison, who was nominated for another Netflix period drama: 2017’s “Mudbound.”

Racial diversity is in every actor/actress category at 2022 Academy Awards, except for Best Supporting Actor. Black people are represented the most with “King Richard,” which has six nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (for Will Smith); Best Supporting Actress (for Aunjanue Ellis); Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing; and Best Original Song (for Beyoncé’s “Be Alive”). “King Richard” is a biopic about Richard “Richie” Williams, the father and early coach of tennis superstars Venus Williams and Serena Williams.

Two African American-oriented films were nominated for Best Documentary Feature this year: Showtime’s “Attica” (directed by Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry) and Searchlight Pictures’ “Summer of Soul (…Or, The Revolution Could Not Be Televised”), directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Meanwhile, Denzel Washington scored his 10th Oscar nomination: Best Actor, for A24/Apple TV+’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” making him the most Oscar-nominated African American in Academy Awards history. Nine of his Oscar nominations are for acting, while one nomination is a Best Picture nod for being a producer of 2016’s “Fences.” Washington has won two Oscars: Best Actor (for 2001’s “Training Day”) and Best Supporting Actor (for 1989’s “Glory”).

Asians were represented the most with “Drive My Car,” a Japanese drama about a grieving widower who goes on a road trip with a young actress. “Drive My Car” earned four Oscar nods: Best Picture; Best Director (for Ryusuke Hamaguchi); Best Adapted Screenplay; and Best International Feature Film. As previously mentioned, “Flee” is about an Afghan refugee. Two other Asian-oriented movies were nominated for Best Documentary Feature: MTV Documentary Films’ “Ascension” (about consumerism in China) and Music Box Films’ “Writing With Fire” (about Indian female journalists). Chinese American director Jessica Kingdon is one of the nominees for “Ascension” while Indian American directors/producers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh are nominated for “Writing With Fire.”

Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which takes place in China and has an all-Asian cast, is nominated for Best Animated Feature, but none of the nominated producers and directors of the movie is Asian. Pakastani British entertainer Riz Ahmed, who got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 2021 for the Amazon Studios drama “Sound of Metal,” is nominated for an Oscar in 2022—this time, for being a producer of “The Long Goodbye,” which is nominated for Best Live-Action Short. Meanwhile, Indian American producer Joseph Patel is one of the Best Documentary Feature nominees for “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”

Hispanic/Latino people nominated for Oscars this year included Oscar-winning spouses Javier Bardem of “Being the Ricardos” (Best Actor) and Penélope Cruz of “Parallel Mothers” (Best Actress); Guillermo del Toro (Best Picture), for being one of the producers of “Nightmare Alley”; “Parallel Mothers” composer Alberto Iglesias (Best Original Score); “Raya and the Last Dragon” co-director Carlos López Estrada (Best Animated Feature); and Ariana DeBose of “West Side Story” (Best Supporting Actress). DeBose, who is multiracial (Hispanic, African American and white) in real life, depicts a Puerto Rican in the 2021 remake of “West Side Story” and is the only cast member and the only person of color to get an Oscar nomination for the movie. “West Side Story” is a musical about racial tensions between white people and Puerto Ricans in early 1960s New York City.

Disney’s Colombian-oriented animated film “Encanto” picked up three nominations: Best Animated Feature (whose nominees includes Latina producer Yvett Marino); Best Original Song (for “Dos Oruguitas,” written by Lin-Manuel Miranda); and Best Original Score (for Germaine Franco, one of the few women ever nominated in this category). Meanwhile, there are Latino nominees in the short film categories: Best Animated Short nominees include writer/director Hugo Covarrubias and producer Tevo Díaz of “Bestia (Beast)” and writer/director Alberto Mielgo and producer Leo Sanchez of “The Windshield Wiper.” “Please Hold” director K.D. Dávila is nominated for Best Live-Action Short.

LGBTQ representation in the Oscar nominations can be found in the animated documentary “Flee” (whose subject is a gay Afghan refugee); Cruz’s queer character Janis Martínez Moreno in “Parallel Mothers” and Cumberbatch’s closeted gay character Phil Burbank in “The Power of the Dog.” In real life, Stewart of “Spencer” and DeBose of “West Side Story” identify as openly queer. The disabled community is represented by “CODA” (about a Massachusetts family of mostly deaf people), which got three nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for real-life deaf actor Troy Kotsur); and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Here is the complete list of nominations for the 2022 Academy Awards:

Best Picture

“Belfast,” Laura Berwick, Kenneth Branagh, Becca Kovacik and Tamar Thomas, producers

“CODA,” Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi and Patrick Wachsberger, producers

“Don’t Look Up,” Adam McKay and Kevin Messick, producers

“Drive My Car,” Teruhisa Yamamoto, producer

“Dune,” Mary Parent, Denis Villeneuve and Cale Boyter, producers

“King Richard,” Tim White, Trevor White and Will Smith, producers

“Licorice Pizza,” Sara Murphy, Adam Somner and Paul Thomas Anderson, producers

“Nightmare Alley,” Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale and Bradley Cooper, producers

“The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion, Tanya Seghatchian, Emile Sherman, Iain Canning and Roger Frappier, producers

“West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg and Kristie Macosko Krieger, producers

Best Director

Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”)

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (“Drive My Car”)

Paul Thomas Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”)

Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”)

Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”)

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Javier Bardem (“Being the Ricardos”)

Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”)

Andrew Garfield (“Tick, Tick … Boom!”)

Will Smith (“King Richard”)

Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”)

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”)

Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”)

Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers”)

Nicole Kidman (“Being the Ricardos”)

Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Ciarán Hinds (“Belfast”)

Troy Kotsur (“CODA”)

Jesse Plemons (“The Power of the Dog”)

J.K. Simmons (“Being the Ricardos”)

Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Power of the Dog”)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Jessie Buckley (“The Lost Daughter”)

Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”)

Judi Dench (“Belfast”)

Kirsten Dunst (“The Power of the Dog”)

Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”)

Best Adapted Screenplay

“CODA,” screenplay by Siân Heder

“Drive My Car,” screenplay by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Takamasa Oe

“Dune,” screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth

“The Lost Daughter,” written by Maggie Gyllenhaal

“The Power of the Dog,” written by Jane Campion

Best Original Screenplay

“Belfast,” written by Kenneth Branagh

“Don’t Look Up,” screenplay by Adam McKay; story by Adam McKay and David Sirota

“King Richard,” written by Zach Baylin

“Licorice Pizza,” written by Paul Thomas Anderson

“The Worst Person in the World,” written by Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier

Best Cinematography

“Dune,” Greig Fraser

“Nightmare Alley,” Dan Laustsen

“The Power of the Dog,” Ari Wegner

“The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Bruno Delbonnel

“West Side Story,” Janusz Kaminski

Best Film Editing

“Don’t Look Up,” Hank Corwin

“Dune,” Joe Walker

“King Richard”, Pamela Martin

“The Power of the Dog,” Peter Sciberras

“Tick, Tick…Boom!” Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum

Best Sound

“Belfast,” Denise Yarde, Simon Chase, James Mather and Niv Adiri

“Dune,” Mac Ruth, Mark Mangini, Theo Green, Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett

“No Time to Die,” Simon Hayes, Oliver Tarney, James Harrison, Paul Massey and Mark Taylor

“The Power of the Dog,” Richard Flynn, Robert Mackenzie and Tara Webb

“West Side Story,” Tod A. Maitland, Gary Rydstrom, Brian Chumney, Andy Nelson and Shawn Murphy

Best Original Score

“Don’t Look Up,” Nicholas Britell

“Dune,” Hans Zimmer

“Encanto,” Germaine Franco

“Parallel Mothers,” Alberto Iglesias

“The Power of the Dog,” Jonny Greenwood

Best Original Song

“Be Alive” from “King Richard,” music and lyric by Dixson and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter

“Dos Oruguitas” from “Encanto,” music and lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda

“Down to Joy” from “Belfast,” music and lyric by Van Morrison

“No Time To Die” from “No Time to Die,” music and lyric by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell

“Somehow You Do” from “Four Good Days,” music and lyric by Diane Warren

Best Animated Feature Film

“Encanto,” Jared Bush, Byron Howard, Yvett Merino and Clark Spencer

“Flee,” Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen and Charlotte De La Gournerie

“Luca,” Enrico Casarosa and Andrea Warren

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” Mike Rianda, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Kurt Albrecht

“Raya and the Last Dragon,” Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho

Best International Feature Film

“Drive My Car” (Japan)

“Flee” (Denmark)

“The Hand of God” (Italy)

“Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” (Bhutan)

“The Worst Person in the World” (Norway)

Best Documentary Feature

“Ascension,” Jessica Kingdon, Kira Simon-Kennedy and Nathan Truesdell

“Attica,” Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry

“Flee,” Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen and Charlotte De La Gournerie

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein

“Writing With Fire,” Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

“Coming 2 America,” Mike Marino, Stacey Morris and Carla Farmer

“Cruella,” Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon

“Dune,” Donald Mowat, Love Larson and Eva von Bahr

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh

“House of Gucci,” Göran Lundström, Anna Carin Lock and Frederic Aspiras

Best Costume Design

“Cruella,” Jenny Beavan

“Cyrano,” Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran

“Dune,” Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan

“Nightmare Alley,” Luis Sequeira

“West Side Story,” Paul Tazewell

Best Production Design

“Dune,” production design: Patrice Vermette; set decoration: Zsuzsanna Sipos

“Nightmare Alley,” production design: Tamara Deverell; set decoration: Shane Vieau

“The Power of the Dog,” production design: Grant Major; set decoration: Amber Richards

“The Tragedy of Macbeth,” production design: Stefan Dechant; set decoration: Nancy Haigh

“West Side Story,” production design: Adam Stockhausen; set decoration: Rena DeAngelo

Best Visual Effects

“Dune,” Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor and Gerd Nefzer*

“Free Guy,” Swen Gillberg, Bryan Grill, Nikos Kalaitzidis and Dan Sudick

“No Time to Die,” Charlie Noble, Joel Green, Jonathan Fawkner and Chris Corbould

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Christopher Townsend, Joe Farrell, Sean Noel Walker and Dan Oliver

“Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Kelly Port, Chris Waegner, Scott Edelstein and Dan Sudick

Best Documentary Short Subject

“Audible,” Matt Ogens and Geoff McLean

“Lead Me Home,” Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk

“The Queen of Basketball,” Ben Proudfoot

“Three Songs for Benazir,” Elizabeth Mirzaei and Gulistan Mirzaei

“When We Were Bullies,” Jay Rosenblatt

Best Animated Short Film

“Affairs of the Art,” Joanna Quinn and Les Mills

“Bestia,” Hugo Covarrubias and Tevo Díaz

“Boxballet,” Anton Dyakov

“Robin Robin,” Dan Ojari and Mikey Please

“The Windshield Wiper,” Alberto Mielgo and Leo Sanchez

Best Live-Action Short Film

“Ala Kachuu – Take and Run,” Maria Brendle and Nadine Lüchinger

“The Dress,” Tadeusz Łysiak and Maciej Ślesicki

“The Long Goodbye,” Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed

“On My Mind,” Martin Strange-Hansen and Kim Magnusson

“Please Hold,” K.D. Dávila and Levin Menekse

Review: ‘Nightmare Alley’ (2021), starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn and Toni Collette

December 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

“Nightmare Alley” (2021)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Culture Representation: Taking place the U.S. (including Buffalo, New York) from 1939 to the mid-1940s, the dramatic noir film “Nightmare Alley” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one African American and one Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A con man finds work at a carnival, where he learns how to use phony psychic skills to swindle people; he then leaves the carnival and teams up with a psychiatrist to con people in high society. 

Culture Audience: “Nightmare Alley” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast, director Guillermo del Toro and noir dramas that are too bloated for their own good.

Rooney Mara and and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

“Nightmare Alley” is a beautiful-looking noir film about many people with very ugly personalities. The movie’s production design, cinematography and costume design are impeccable. Unfortunately, the movie’s sluggish pacing, hollow characters and corny dialogue drag down this film into being a self-indulgent bore. It’s disappointing because there’s so much talent involved in making this film, but a movie like this is supposed to intrigue viewers from beginning to end, not make them feel like they want to go to sleep.

The 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley” (which clocks in at an overly long 150 minutes, or two-and-a-half hours) is a remake of director Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film “Nightmare Alley,” starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker. The movie is based on the 1946 “Nightmare Alley” novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley” is also Guillermo del Toro’s directorial follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2017 fantasy drama “The Shape of Water.” Most of the “Nightmare Alley” remake’s stars, producers and department chiefs also have Academy Award recognition, as Oscar nominees or Oscar winners. What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, all this talent cannot overcome this movie’s dreadfully dull pacing and painfully heavy-handed screenwriting that’s filled with hokey conversations. The “Nightmare Alley” remake screenplay (written by del Toro and Kim Morgan), which takes place from 1939 to the mid-1940s, lacks enough flair and nuance to bring these characters to life as well-rounded people. And fans of the original “Nightmare Alley” movie should be warned: This remake has an ending that’s much bleaker than the original movie.

In addition, better judgment should have been used in trimming parts of this movie that didn’t further the story very well. The first half of the movie takes place in a carnival, while most of the second half takes place in more upscale environments, when the central character (who’s a con artist) decides to go after wealthier targets than the type of people who go to carnivals. It seems like the filmmakers were so enamored with the elaborate production design for the carnival scenes, they overindulged in this part of the movie, which has a lot of drab dialogue and scenes with repetitive intentions.

At the world premiere of “Nightmare Alley” in New York City, producer J. Miles Dale said in an introduction on stage that the movie had been completed just two weeks before the premiere. That might explain why more thought wasn’t put into the film editing, which fails to sustain a high level of suspense and intrigue. This type of thrill is essential in a movie that pays homage to film noir of the 1940s.

And this is not a good sign: Many people at the premiere were laughing at lines that weren’t intended to be funny. (I attended the premiere, so I saw all of this firsthand.) As the movie plodded on, more and more people were checking the time on their phones, and the audience seemed to get more restless. But the bigger indication that this movie might not be as well-received as the filmmakers intended is that audience members at the premiere were openly giggling at lines of dialogue that were supposed to be dead-serious.

For example, there’s a scene where a character is physically assaulted in an attempted murder, which is thwarted when help arrives. When the character is asked how they’re feeling right after this attack, the character says in a melodramatic tone, “I’ll live.” It’s supposed to be a moment of high drama played to maximum effect, but several people were laughing because of how the scene is delivered in such a hammy way.

At the end of the movie, people in the audience politely applauded. (Keep in mind, that the audience also consisted of numerous people who worked on the film.) However, it wasn’t the kind of thunderous, standing-ovation applause that usually happens at a premiere for an award-worthy movie that’s going to be a massive, crowd-pleasing hit. Considering that there were many awards voters in the audience, this type of underwhelming response indicates that—at least for this particular premiere audience—many people weren’t that impressed with this remake of “Nightmare Alley.”

Even if the audience response had been more enthusiastic, it wouldn’t be able to cover up the movie’s problems. All of the cast members seem to be doing the best that they can, but they are often stymied by some of the trite dialogue that mostly renders them as caricatures. Very little is revealed about the characters’ backgrounds to give them a story behind their personal motivations.

Bradley Cooper (who is one of the film’s producers) portrays the lead character: Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a con-man drifter who ends up working at a seedy traveling carnival. He starts off doing lowly odd jobs, such as helping with construction and clean-ups. But eventually, he charms his way into becoming part of the fake psychic act at the carnival.

The carnival’s psychic act is led by a married couple named Zeena Krumbein (played by Toni Collette) and Pete Krumbein (played by David Strathairn), who coordinate their act through code words, body language and hidden written prompts underneath the stage. Zeena (whose carnival nickname is The Seer) is the flamboyant “psychic” who acts and dresses like a stereotypical fortune teller. While she’s on stage, Pete is underneath the stage, where he writes information on placards that Zeena can see from where she’s standing. The information supplies the hints and codes that prompt Zeena to correctly guess personal facts about someone who gets a “psychic reading” from her.

The Krumbeins have recorded the secrets of their con game in a small journal-sized book that is mostly kept in Pete’s possession. Stan is eager to read the book, but the Krumbeins won’t let him, although they eventually divulge some of their main secrets. Although the Krumbeins have had a partnership in work and in marriage for several years, the romantic passion has left their relationship.

Pete (a former magician) has become an alcoholic, and his alcoholism has caused him to be sloppy and unreliable in his work. He might pass out during one of Zeena’s performances, which is what happens in one scene where Stan has to quickly take over for a barely coherent Pete. It’s implied that Pete has become an alcoholic because he feels guilty about conning people. At one point, Pete warns Stan that the Krumbeins’ con-game secrets should not be abused, and anyone who does so could be cursed. “No man can outrun God!” Pete says ominously.

Zeena openly has affairs with other men. And you know what that means. It isn’t long before Stan and Zeena have an affair, but it’s all lust and no love. And considering that Stan is a con artist, he has ulterior motives for getting close to Zeena. This is an example of the cornball dialogue in the movie: Zeena says this pickup line to Stan before they begin their sexual relationship: “You’re a maybe. And maybes are real bad for me.”

While Stan is carrying on an affair with Zeena, he finds himself more attracted to a virtuous young carnival worker named Molly Cahill (played by Rooney Mara), who performs as an electricity-absorbing phenomenon named Elektra. Molly’s Elektra act consists of being tied to an electric chair and absorbing shocks of voltage that could kill or injure most people. Molly has a trusting nature that makes her blind to Stan’s manipulative ways. Not much information is given about Molly’s background to explain why she’s so naïve about the “smoke and mirrors” carnival business and the con artists that this type of business attracts.

Stan and Zeena’s affair eventually fizzles out, and he begins ardently courting Molly. However, the carnival has a strong man named Bruno (played by Ron Perlman), who is very protective of Molly and is suspicious of Stan’s intentions. Bruno has a co-star named Major Mosquito (played by Mark Povinelli), who also sees himself in a patriarchal role for the carnival. Bruno’s hostility toward Stan doesn’t stop Molly from falling for Stan’s charms. Eventually, Molly and Stan become lovers.

Not much is revealed about Stan’s background except that he’s originally from Mississippi, and he has “daddy issues.” On a rare occasion that he opens up to someone about his past, he talks about a treasured watch that he has that was previously owned by Stan’s dead father. In brief flashbacks, it’s slowly revealed what Stan’s relationship with his father was like.

Meanwhile, other characters at the carnival are in the story, but they are essentially superficial clichés. The carny boss (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is a typical huckster. The carnival barker Clem Hoatley (played by Willem Dafoe) is a gruff taskmaster with a cruel and sadistic side. He likes to torment the carnival’s caged “freak” (played by Paul Anderson), a pathetic, gnarled, and dirty human being whose birth name is never revealed in the story and who is usually referred to as the Geek.

Clem tells people that the Geek can go days without food and water. The Geek doesn’t talk but instead snarls and growls like an animal. As part of the Geek’s “act,” Clem or other people feed live chickens to the Geek, who tears the chickens apart and eats them raw. Sensitive viewers should be warned that the movie shows these acts of animal cruelty in detail, through visual effects.

Cruelty and degradation (to animals and to human beings) permeate throughout “Nightmare Alley,” which is nearly devoid of any intended humor. The scenes are staged with immense attention to detail on how everything looks, but the filmmakers didn’t pay enough attention to how these characters are supposed to make viewers feel. Most of the main characters are obnoxious and/or smug, which makes it harder for viewers to root for anyone. Molly is the only character in the movie who seems immune to becoming corrupt, but she’s written as almost too good to be true.

When too many people in a movie are unlikable, that can be a problem if they’re unable to convey some shred of humanity that can make them more relatable to viewers. And the result is a movie where viewers won’t care much about the backstabbing, selfish and greedy characters that over-populate this movie. Because so many of the characters (except for Molly) are so blatant with their devious ways, there’s no suspense over who will end up double-crossing whom. And that makes almost everything so predictable.

Due to a series of circumstances, Stan ends up becoming Zeena’s partner in the fake clairvoyant act. Stan thinks that he’s got real talent for this type of con game, so he decides to run off with Molly and target wealthier “marks” so he can become rich too. Considering that Bruno is the type to get physically rough in his disapproval of Molly and Stan’s relationship, and Bruno isn’t leaving the carnival anytime soon, Stan and Molly believe the time is right to leave the carnival for a better life. Molly and Stan relocate to Buffalo, New York.

Stan then become a semi-successful solo psychic named the Great Stanton, who does his act at sleek nightclubs attended by upper-class people. Molly is his willing accomplice, as long as Stan confines his act to entertaining people as a performer who shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Stan often wears a blindfold for added effect when he makes his guesses about people, based on their body language, the way that they dress and any information he can get about the guests before the show. Stan is no longer financially struggling like he was as a carnival worker, but he wants to be as wealthy as or wealthier than the people who attend his shows. He’s about to meet his new partner his crime.

During one of his performances, Stan has a heckler in the audience who challenges his authenticity. Her name is Dr. Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who tries to humiliate Stan by demanding that he tell everyone what is hidden in her purse. Through a series of observant deductions, Stan correctly guesses that she has a gun in her purse. He then proceeds to turn the tables on Lilith and publicly embarrass her with scathing comments for trying to prove that he’s a fraud.

Under these circumstances, any fool can see that Lilith is not the type of person to forgive and forget this public shaming. However, when Lilith invites Stan to her office, Stan readily accepts. She tells him that she knows he’s a con artist and won’t believe otherwise. Stan then admits it and tells Lilith how he figured out that she was carrying a pistol in his purse. The stage has now been set for two people who think they’re more cunning than the other, as they both try to see what they can get out of any relationship they might have.

Lilith tells Stan that she secretly records all of the sessions that she has with her patients, who are among the richest and most powerful people in the area. Stan immediately has the idea of using that information to target some of these people with his phony psychic act, by using their private information from these recorded sessions to convince them that he knows their secrets. Stan asks Lilith which of her clients is the wealthiest.

And that’s how Stan hears about ruthless business mogul Ezra Grindle (played by Richard Jenkins), who is successful when it comes to his career, but his personal life is filled with bitterness and loneliness. Ezra has confessed to Lilith that he’s been plagued with guilt over causing the death of a young woman he once loved. It’s information that Lilith and Stan use to concoct a scheme to swindle Ezra out of a fortune that they want to get in cash.

Stan and Lilith have the type of relationship where they trade insults but are sexually attracted to each other. It doesn’t take long for Stan to cheat on Molly with Lilith. Blanchett fully commits to the role of a classic noir ice queen, but her portrayal of Lilith is so transparently calculating, it’s never convincing that Lilith can be trusted in this con game that she’s agreed to with Stan.

Ezra isn’t the only “mark” who’s a target of Stan and Lilith. A well-to-do married couple named Charles Kimball (played by Peter MacNeill) and Felicia Kimball (played by Mary Steenburgen) get caught up in the deceit and fraud that Stan and Lilith have in store for them. It has to do with the Kimballs’ emotional pain over the death of their 23-year-old son Julian, who died while he was enlisted in the military. And it’s an example of how low Stan and Lilith are willing to go to exploit the death of a loved one for money.

As lead character Stan, Cooper is in almost every scene of “Nightmare Alley.” His character remains mostly an enigma because, like many con artists, he changes his persona to fit whatever perception will work to get people to do what he wants. He’s the most complex character of the movie, but his personality never comes across as genuine. Over time, Stan shows that he’s not only heartless, but he also doesn’t have much of a conscience unless he’s the one who might get hurt. He’s not even an anti-hero, although the last 10 minutes of the film try to garner some viewer sympathy for Stan.

Ezra can sense that Stan can’t be trusted, so Ezra goes back and forth with how skeptical he is when Stan tries to charm his way into Ezra’s life. However, Stan knows so many private details about Ezra, it’s enough to convince Ezra that maybe Stan is the telling the truth about being psychic. Ezra is supposed to be a brilliant businessman, but at no point is he smart enough to figure out that maybe his psychiatrist has been leaking his personal information.

Stan is supposed to be a skillful con artist, but at no point is he wise enough to figure out that if Lilith has a recording device in her office to secretly record people, maybe she would use it to secretly record Stan too. After all, the recording can be cleverly edited to leave out any incriminating things that Lilith would say. This is all just common sense, which is why it’s a bit of a slog when the movie lumbers along to make it look like there’s some kind of mystery about Lilith’s intentions. The only thing in the movie that might be considered a little unpredictable is what happens with the Kimballs.

“Nightmare Alley” is not the first retro-noir-inspired movie directed by del Toro. He also directed 2015’s “Crimson Peak” (starring Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska), which also yielded mixed results because the pacing for the movie was so lethargic. At least “Crimson Peak” has a less tedious length of two hours. “Nightmare Alley” tries to convince people that it’s fascinating to watch monotonous scene after monotonous scene of Stan working his way up the carnival hierarchy, when the real story is what he does once he decides he’s going to become a phony psychic. The pace of the movie would’ve been better-served if about 20 to 30 minutes of the movie’s first half had been edited out.

The movie’s screenplay is still problematic though because of how it leaves no room to care about the story’s overabundance of distrustful and shallow characters, who spout a lot of words that don’t have much substance. “Nightmare Alley” takes so long to get to the inevitable end result of Stan and Lilith’s partnership, many viewers might have emotionally checked out by the time it happens. It’s enough to say that Molly is really the only character that viewers might care about by the time the movie is over. This remake’s revised ending has a well-acted, emotional final scene, but it’s not enough to make up for the character soullessness throughout most of the movie.

Searchlight Pictures will release “Nightmare Alley” in U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021.

UPDATE: Searchlight Pictures will release a black-and-white version of “Nightmare Alley” titled “Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light” for a limited engagement in select U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix
CULTURE MIX