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'Nightmare Alley,' 'The Batman,' and a Personal Update
Guillermo del Toro's latest and an even darker Batman. Plus, an explanation for why I'm so late with this issue!
Hello, readers! Before I dig into this week’s reviews, I want to make an announcement about the cadence of this newsletter.
When I first launched Flow With Film, my goal was to get reviews out once a week. For a while, I was able to keep that up. Unfortunately, I’ve had to slow down recently—but for good reason. A huge portion of the free time I had set aside for writing is now being redirected towards grabbing hold of my dream career—becoming a feature film editor.
Between working on an assistant editor course, holding a full-time job, and making time for loved ones, my free hours are sparse. Despite that, I want to keep this newsletter alive. Writing it is too much fun and seeing that people are enjoying it is immensely fulfilling. So the compromise is this: instead of weekly releases, this will become more of a monthly newsletter. It’s possible this newsletter may even take on a new form as my career path develops. Like my future, there are a lot of unknowns.
Regardless of what happens, I want to give a huge thank you to all my readers. We’re all busy, and your generosity in taking time out of your day to read this means so much to me. You are the fuel that keeps it running, and I hope you continue to stay with me on this journey. There’s a long road ahead, but it’s always better with friends.
So with that, let’s get back to the movies. Let’s talk about a great film no one saw and a decent film everyone saw—Nightmare Alley and The Batman, respectively.
Nightmare Alley - 2021 - Directed by Guillermo del Toro - Crime, Drama, Thriller - R - 2h 30m
I’m ashamed to say I’m part of the reason Nightmare Alley bombed at the box office. I, like so many others, decided to skip it when it first released in theaters—condemning it to a pitiful domestic opening of $2.8 million. It deserved so much better.
I have since seen the film twice now. Once on my own and the second time with my best friend. He didn’t know much about it and as I was trying to explain it, I realized I was doing the film an injustice. So I just let it play. Twenty minutes in, he turns to me and says, “This movie is good!”
Nightmare Alley has that sort of alluring pull, slowly washing over you with intoxicating rhythm. From gritty, crimson-soaked carnivals to cavernous psychiatric offices, the camera is always on the move—searching and probing, squeezing every bit of story and character out of each location. The position of actors within the frame, aka “blocking,” is deliberate, telling you everything you need to know through movement. It’s painting with the camera—filmmaking in its truest form. Before you know it, you’re tightly wound around its finger, hypnotized by the precision.
Adapted from a novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, writer/director Guillermo del Toro deploys his filmmaking prowess to peel back the curtain of 1940s carnival life, revealing the manipulative strategies carnival performers used to entertain, comfort, and—unfortunately—exploit the gullible public. It’s detailed, specific, and most importantly, fascinating.
Stanton Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper, is the main character, but he’s not what you would call a protagonist—or even an anti-hero. He’s a no-good schemer—a very talented one— that uses his gifts at reading people to swindle them to his fullest gain. He may not be likeable, but it’s thrilling to see him work.
He learns his craft from a colorful roster of characters played by heavy hitting actors like Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, and David Strathairn. Rounding out the cast is a deliciously devious Cate Blanchett and a heartbroken Richard Jenkins. The film is stacked with great performers, making Cooper feel weaker by comparison—especially when he mumbles through a muddy Southern accent to the point of occasional unintelligibility. Despite this, he pulls through when it really counts, bringing it all in for a powerful final shot.
Maybe it was bad marketing. Maybe it was the pandemic. Or maybe it was because the film opened up against Spiderman: No Way Home. Whatever the reason, the fact is, Nightmare Alley is a great film by a great filmmaker that everyone missed. Now, with its easy accessibility on Hulu and HBO Max, there’s a second chance.
The Batman - 2022 - Directed by Matt Reeves - Action, Crime, Drama - PG-13 - 2h 56m
What The Batman lacks in fun, it makes up for in its unflinching dedication to striking a singular mood—a sustained bleakness that smothers any chance of light. There’s no relief in this Gotham. It’s a nightmare world of murder, corruption, and hopelessness. Every frame is shrouded in darkness, rain-drenched streets, and unnerving neon lights. Paired with Michael Giacchino’s blaring, brooding soundtrack, the film is a visual and auditory achievement. It’s a shame the narrative can’t reach the same heights.
Director Matt Reeves promised a greater emphasis on Batman as The World’s Greatest Detective, and those elements are certainly there. The problem is the case he’s unraveling isn’t all that intriguing. Corrupt political figures are murdered—and that’s it, really. There’s not much to investigate.
The thoroughly rewarding character arcs and extremely tense scenarios in Christopher Nolan’s far superior The Dark Knight are flattened in The Batman. Everything is submerged in unrelenting grimness, a uniformity that is aesthetically admirable but emotionally inert. If you start at the bottom of the cesspool, you can’t dive deeper. The story is drowned in so much heinous corruption that even a major revelation towards the end has its shock value dulled. It all amounts to a one-note narrative—a monotone joylessness that gets dangerously close to tedium.
Watching Robert Pattinson as The Batman is the film’s saving grace. Pattinson looks perfect in the Batsuit, in a way the previous Batmen did not. Looking back at The Dark Knight Trilogy, the dry visual approach made the Batsuit sometimes look extremely silly next to serious lawyers and police officers. In the context of The Batman, the suit is of a piece with this more stylized Gotham, and it’s always fun to see Batman in action. Hearing his footsteps thud menacingly through pitch-blackness before he finally emerges from the shadows—that’s inspired filmmaking.
If atmosphere matters more to you, The Batman will serve you well. It’s a stunning film to look at and listen to, even when its dreariness can wear you thin. The perfect Batman film would be a fusion of Nolan’s propulsive emotional intensity with Reeves’ atmospheric eye-candy. We’re not there yet, but maybe next time. This bat just needs to find its wings.
Nightmare Alley is streaming on Hulu and HBO Max.
The Batman is only in theaters.
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