In Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, Nightmare Alley, there aren’t any creatures in sight – unless you count the carnival/freak show in the first half of the film.
Stanton Carlisle (played by Bradley Cooper) is a drifter running from his past. Along his travels, he joins a roadside carnival where learns the art of mentalism, before leaving to make a name for himself as a master mentalist. As Stanton sets his sights on larger and larger marks, he risks everything.
If nothing else, Nightmare Alley is a marvel in terms of its visuals. Everything on the screen here, from the run-down carnival to the art deco cityscape, looks like something out of a grand old-Hollywood movie. However, as well thought out as everything clearly is onscreen, it still manages to maintain a “lived in” quality.
Some set pieces such as Dr. Lilith Ritter’s (Cate Blanchett) office look larger than life, but nothing ever feels too over the top. Fans looking for something more supernatural or fantastical may be disappointed, but del Toro’s signature is all over this movie despite its more grounded premise. So much of Nightmare Alley’s set design foreshadows the inventible events, which deserve more than just the initial viewing.
The one criticism of Nightmare Alley I have is the length of its narrative. The two halves of the movie are constructed very well; but the link bridging the two parts feels weak. The relationship between Stan and Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) would be better served if the duo were seen performing their act instead of having a title card saying ‘two years later’ before jumping straight to the height of their career. Plus, characters like Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), Bruno (Ron Perlman), and Pete (David Strathairn) are sadly left in the dust once the second half of the film starts.
The movie’s strength is found in both Cooper and Blanchett’s performances. Cooper successfully portrays the multifaceted journey of Stan as we watch him go from downtrodden drifter to arrogant master psychic. Blanchett as Cooper’s foil is also captivating. At times, her words are as smooth as oil and other times they’re dripping with venom. One must wonder if she’s offering advice or issuing a threat. Either way, she’s magnetic.
In true noir fashion, Nightmare Alley’s ending is fairly heavy. However, it invites multiple rewatches to allow the audience adequate time to contemplate this cautionary tale.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS: Surprisingly, the bonus materials aren’t too long considering the movie’s runtime. Most of the featurettes are about 8-12 minutes in length but they detail the painstaking detail that was poured into this movie and are well worth a watch.
· “Del Toro’s Neo Noir” – writer-director Guillermo del Toro and his standout cast decipher the dark, complicated world of Nightmare Alley. The filmmaker reveals how his take on noir is rooted in classic cinema but offers an accessible, modern narrative.
· “Beneath the Tarp” – Production designer Tamara Deverell and her talented team skillfully delivered both a decaying traveling carnival world an da gilded Art Deco high society with striking visuals. We explore how this design supported del Toro’s genre-bending filmmaking.
· “What Exists in the Fringe” – Costume designer Luis Sequeira unravels his collaboration with Guillermo del Toro and reveals the symbolism that’s constantly at play in the film’s carefully crafted wardrobe’s design.
The Big Comic Page was provided a screener of the movie for review purposes. “Nightmare Alley” is available on Digital now and the 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD are available on March 22, 2022.
The writer of this piece is: Laurence Almalvez
Laurence tweets from @IL1511