Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB
USA/Mexico/Canada, 2021. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Double Dare You, Searchlight Pictures, TSG Entertainment. Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan, based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Cinematography by Dan Laustsen. Produced by Bradley Cooper, J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro. Music by Nathan Johnson. Production Design by Tamara Deverell. Costume Design by Luis Sequeira. Film Editing by Cameron McLaughlin.
Edmund Goulding’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel wasn’t a hit when first released in 1947, it took decades for it be appreciated and eventually venerated as a brilliant combination of horror elements and classic noir, a pristine example of Fox studio’s curious and original takes on the latter genre. Its rehabilitation as a classic after the fact means, of course, that a remake was eventually going to happen, and it comes as no surprise that Guillermo del Toro, himself a crafty combiner of beloved exploitation genres with finely honed drama, would be the one to bring it into the modern era, keeping it set in the post-World War II years but restoring the novel’s downbeat ending (in place of the softer conclusion that studio head Daryl Zanuck dictated), and indulging us in far more gory imagery than the original film’s era would allow.
It begins when drifter and eventual con man Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) wraps up his past in no uncertain terms and gets on a bus heading for anywhere, riding it to the end of the line and finding himself in a nowhere town where he follows a diminutive man onto the grounds of a carnival. Stan immediately gets work from the carnival’s director (Willem Dafoe) as a grunt, moves his way up to barker and then, thanks to his helping a worn-out mentalist act being performed by Zeena (Toni Collette) and her broken-down, alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), Stan eventually learns the tricks of their trade. His friends-with-benefits relationship with Zeena mixes badly with his affection for sweet, soft-spoken carny Molly (Rooney Mara), and they eventually run away together, moving up in society circles by becoming a classy nightclub act in which Molly uses the verbal coding that Stan has taught her to convince people that, even while blindfolded, he can see the contents of their purses and their hearts.
When classy psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett posing like a Hurrell photograph in every shot) enters the club and challenges the couple’s “magical” skills, Stan is intrigued and pursues a connection with her, her refinement the next step in his movement to glory (and his flying too close to the sun). Stan and Lilith team up and she gives him information that can help him enter the lives of the city’s most powerful families, doing private readings for leading citizens in which Stan gives them comfort for past losses and they hand over tons of dough; this “spook” act, however, is hubris and something that Zeena warned him long ago to pursue at his own peril.
Del Toro has often said that Goulding’s film is one of his favourite movies, and that’s the first indication that this remake is going to be a slog to sit through and, possibly, not a film he should have taken on. He outdoes himself with the glinty cinematography, eye-popping production design and the assemblage of a dazzling cast of stars, but Del Toro doesn’t actually want to remake his favourite movie, he wants to enter it, sit around in it and explore every possible corner of it to an exhausting degree. What plays like sharp drama with high stakes in the original has been dulled down to very vague plot turns that aren’t always clear, and while he’s bold enough to add such modern luxuries as chickens being bitten in two, a fun bathtub handjob and skulls being crushed in close-up, the director has for some reason removed or toned down a lot of the relationship dynamics that were much clearer the first time around, such as Zeena’s feelings about her husband, Stan’s guilt about using Pete as a stepping stone and Lilith’s eventual reveal about her feelings for Stan. Much like when Peter Jackson remade King Kong and wore us out with an unnecessarily lengthy running time, Del Toro doesn’t so much make his own version of a film but spends a preposterous near-three hour running time explaining one to us, thinking that by adding so much extra dialogue, most of which is exposition, we won’t notice that there are no sparks flying between any of his characters.
Cooper turns in an uneven performance in the lead, he never quite masters the level of reckless, blind ambition that leads a deserved comeuppance (which Tyrone Power managed to pull of while remaining sympathetic), and Mara is, as usual, as uncomplicated and unchallenging as ever. Collette turns in some fine moments despite the role never being as big as she deserves, and Blanchett has a wickedly good time camping it up, perfectly recreating the look of classic movie stars and happily grinning her blood-red lips every time she sees an opportunity to score over her opponent. The few pleasures this boring film has to offer are her constantly looking like a ghoul in every image she appears in, you could call it Nightmare Carol, but her being the only person who clearly understands the film she’s in is little compensation for what one must endure the rest of the time.
Screen Actors Guild Award Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett)