Nightmare Alley review: GDT’s film noir never kicks into high gear

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved /

Despite a talented cast and a sharp script, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley never fully realizes the potential of its premise, resulting in an at times witty but mostly muddled film.

With a penchant for the ghastly and the magical, Guillermo del Toro has established himself as one of the most recognizable filmmakers in modern Hollywood – his specific brand of bizarre having turned out films like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, and Crimson Peak in years past. Now the master of the macabre returns with his latest film, Nightmare Alley, a reimagining of both the 1946 book and the 1947 movie of the same name. Though populated with fascinating characters (brought to life by an impressive cast), boasting a witty script, and featuring a stunning sense of aesthetics, Nightmare Alley‘s lackluster plot leaves much to be desired – weighing down an otherwise clever film by never truly kicking things into high gear.

Starring Bradley Cooper, Nightmare Alley follows down-on-his-luck traveling carney Stanton Carlisle (Cooper), who runs across a new carnival and quickly befriends its resident psychic and his wife. After picking up some psychic tricks of the trade, Stanton, and his beautiful young love interest Molly (Rooney Mara) take their act to the big leagues: performing mystical feats at a glitzy hotel. When he crosses paths with femme fatale psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), she and Stanton strike a deal. She’ll divulge her client’s secrets so Stanton can perform readings for all sorts of wealthy patrons and the duo will split the profits. Though at first, their con seems to go off without a hitch, Stanton quickly finds himself in over his head when a mysterious and intimidating new client demands Stanton perform a miracle – and soon, even those Stanton thinks he can trust begin to turn on him.

Based on both a novel and a film adaption that came a year later, it’s easy to tell that Nightmare Alley has its roots in film noir: from the slick, slang-ridden dialogue to Cate Blanchett’s cunning and frostily beautiful femme fatale, the film boasts all the classic staples of the genre, albeit with Del Toro’s signature unsettling twist: a setting in a sleazy, run-down carnival. Nightmare Alley‘s sense of aesthetics – from the cinematography to the costumes and production design to the score – is all spot on for the era, and does wonders help the film craft a singular identity that pays homage to a bygone era while also remaining in del Toro’s creepy carnival-inspired wheelhouse.

Beyond its enchanting trappings, though, that’s where the film starts to suffer – the narrative simply isn’t strong enough to match pace with the faultless sense of aesthetics and an all-star cast. It’s certainly a fascinating premise: a carney teaming up with a psychiatrist to con unsuspecting wealthy clients. But once the initial grift is established (a feat which doesn’t even occur until the film’s halfway mark) the plot never truly elevates from there: instead of spinning its wheels in the buildup to some climactic final confrontation that ends up being painfully predictable: hardly the ending one would expect from a film that started so mysterious and witty.

Like the world Stanton inhabits, Nightmare Alley functions in two distinct realms: the magical, macabre world of the carnival and the stuffy, high-stakes world of Stanton’s professional career as a magician. Though both halves on their own make for fascinating endeavors, the day-and-night split between them is frustrating in that it’s stark enough to cause jarring contrast, but that contrast is in turn not utilized well enough to feel deliberate. The result makes Nightmare Alley feel like two separate concepts melded into one: after the film spends the first hour establishing the world of the carnival, its secrets, and its inhabitants, that entire storyline is abandoned until the last 10 minutes of the film in favor of introducing yet another new setting and new characters to inhabit it.

Granted, those characters are fascinating: from Toni Collette’s seductive psychic to Ron Pearlman’s intimidating strong man and Willem DaFoe’s skeevy house of oddities owner. The circus folk lean enough into conventional genre tropes to be recognizable while still maintaining their sense of self and feeling grounded in the specific world of the story. The post-circus story is filled with far fewer characters (thankfully – had the film introduced any more major players it would’ve overburdened itself), instead opting to focus its energies on the electric Dr. Lilith, who steals the show the second she appears.

As Lilith, Cate Blanchett is at her most potent and seductive while still maintaining her signature air of grace, superiority, and cleverness . You get the feeling that the good doctor always knows more than she lets on, and that even when she’s in a position of vulnerability, she still has some ace up her sleeve. She makes for a perfect foil to Bradley Cooper’s smooth-talking and psychologically traumatized Stanton whose talent for deception ends up getting him into hot water that only Lilith knows how to resolve.

Still, even with some incredible dialogue exchanges and the ever-present cat-and-mouse game between its two leads, Nightmare Alley‘s struggle to find a satisfying conclusion and its issues with pacing take a fascinating premise and reduce it to a muddled shadow of what it could’ve been. Though Cooper and Blanchett make for a pitch-perfect pair, their chemistry still can’t elevate this macabre take on film noir to new heights.

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