Never be a geek, 3.5 readers. Believe me, the last thing you want to be, at least in this film’s definition of the word, is a geek.
BQB here with a review of Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar buzzed noir flick.
It’s the early 1940s and drifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper in a fedora, see?) has just snatched up a paying gig, he’s a carnie and accordingly, all the freaks and geeks of a traveling show will educate him on the ways of flim flam, fakery, deception and of course, the con.
His professors in this master class include Zeena and Pete (Toni Collette and David Strathairn) – a couple who perform as a fortune teller and her assistant bilking the crowd of boku buckeroos with claims of communication with the great beyond. Meanwhile, “geek keeper”) Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) educates the lad (Cooper is referred to throughout this movie as young buck but isn’t he pushing fifty? Oh well, if you’re handsome enough…) on how no one gets ahead without getting their hands dirty. (Sidenote: in this movie, “geek” does not mean “person who collects many Star Wars action figures” as it does in modern times and I’ll leave it at that.)
Rooney Mara rounds out the cast as Molly, she who claims an astounding ability to absorb electricity and Ron Perlman stars as strong man Bruno, Molly’s father-appointed protector who promised to beat up anyone who hurts Molly, thus putting Stan the Man in line for a knuckle sandwich with extra beatdown sauce if he misbehaves.
Long story short, the film is actually two films. The first half, Stan learns the art of the con and the second half, flash forward years later to a time when Stan has perfected the con, performing a mysterious mentalist act with the help of assistant Molly to large, sold out halls in the big city.
Enter Dr. Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Molly describes her as a stone-faced bitch and frankly, that’s the best description of Blanchett’s typical role I’ve ever heard. In addition to being a stone-faced bitch, Ritter is also a psychiatrist, who views her profession as a legalized con and recruits Stan to use his BS skills to bilk uber wealthy but hella gullible rubes out of their bucks in exchange for Stan tricking them into believing he can communicate with their deceased loved ones.
Then again, the uber rich aren’t people you want to piss off…and I’ll leave it there, another than to mention turns by Richard Jenkins, Holt McCallany and Mary Steenbergen.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. I saw this offered on HBO Max and for a long time I assumed it was some sort of new series that I didn’t feel like investing time in. The movie was long and at times I actually wondered if it would have worked better as a series with Stan conning a new mark every week. I’m not sure it’s Oscar worthy and may not have been in the running had it not been for Del Toro’s direction.
DOUBLE SIDNOTE: In the first half of the film, it is always raining. In the second half, it is always snowing. At any rate, bad weather abounds.
TRIPLE SIDNOTE: Based on an old novel turned into a 1940s film that makes me want to go check out the old film. I doubt I will though because I am incredibly lazy.
LOOK AWAY UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN IT!
There’s two endings. I can’t get too deep into them other than to say the first ending required me to suspend disbelief as it seemed unlikely someone so adept at conning would do what they did.
As for the second ending, that was great and fitting and it added some symmetry, bringing it back to the beginning of the film which I felt laid out something terrible and made me wonder if they had just forgotten this part only to go back to it at the end.