‘Nightmare Alley’ Movie Review: Guillermo del Toro’s Fair Noir Highlights Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett

Nightmare Alley is an average piece of film noir. It certainly isn’t the big return that Guillermo del Toro fans were hoping to get after his Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water. However, it offers a wide array of stellar performances, particularly from Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett. Nightmare Alley offers exceptional style, but there isn’t much substance behind it all.

Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’ is a readaptation

'Nightmare Alley' Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter and Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle standing in her office with a window behind them with light coming in
Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter and Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle | Kerry Hayes/20th Century Studios

Nightmare Alley is based on the 1946 novel by the same name. However, it’s a readaptation rather than a remake of the 1947 film. Stanton Carlisle (Cooper) is a highly charismatic man who finds himself enlisting as a carny. He gets close with the clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband, Pete (David Strathairn). But, Stan knows that his future is destined for far greater and richer things, especially after he meets his love, named Molly (Rooney Mara).

Stan creates a scheme using mentalist talents to earn a living. However, his unquenchable greed knows no bounds. Stan plans to swindle the famously dangerous and brutal tycoon named Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) out of a whole lot of money using his talents. The mysterious Dr. Lilith Ritter (Blanchett) agrees to help Stan pull off this risky scheme with potentially huge rewards.

Guillermo del Toro takes his time worldbuilding

Del Toro and Kim Morgan’s Nightmare Alley screenplay uses the carnival as a tool to introduce Stan and how he fits into the world. Each character’s introduction displays their talents, but the true intention is to build the world around Stan. Some instantly fall for his good looks and undeniable charm, although others get a bad feeling about him. Stan is the movie’s core, as all of the story’s movement is always a result of his direct and indirect actions.

Nightmare Alley incorporates a love story between Stan and Molly. It starts with harmless conversation and light flirting, but their feelings grow into something much bigger. The romance reads genuine and true. This love soon leads into the movie’s theme of truth. It’s a thematic motif that remains consistent across tarot card usage, many carny acts including mentalism, Stan’s therapy sessions, and the story’s romance. Truth becomes the cat-and-mouse game that Stan finds himself in.

Stan leaves a huge impression on everyone that he meets. However, it’s not always a positive one. Nightmare Alley establishes the line between love and hatred until that line becomes blurred across several character relationships. This holds true in all forms of love, including non-romantic connections. Del Toro leaves no relationships entirely innocent.

‘Nightmare Alley’ is an average noir

'Nightmare Alley' Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle standing inside a carnival spiral tunnel
Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle | Kerry Hayes/20th Century Studios

Del Toro once again proves his mastery behind the camera. He does such a wonderful job visually establishing every element of Nightmare Alley‘s world. Tamara Deverell’s production design and Shane Vieau’s set decoration are top-notch. Dan Laustsen’s beautiful cinematography often divides the screen with yellows and blue-ish greens that make every frame look dynamic.

Nightmare Alley has some pacing issues, particularly within its first act. It successfully builds its world thematically, but it doesn’t truly start moving until Dr. Ritter is introduced. Nightmare Alley suddenly picks itself up from a crawl to a full-on sprint. The world of the carnies is surprisingly the least interesting element in the movie, as the film’s real intrigue comes from his scheme against Grindle and its dramatic repercussions. There’s a lot more there that goes completely unexplored.

Cooper is rightfully an Oscar contender for his performance as Stan. Blanchett also turns in exquisite work as Dr. Ritter. Nightmare Alley is sufficiently captivating when it starts moving, but it takes a while to get there. Del Toro infuses the story with an abundance of style and atmosphere. Nightmare Alley is a gorgeously shot and beautifully acted piece of film noir, but its story suffers from obvious genre tropes. It’s somewhat of a minor film from a major filmmaker.

Nightmare Alley hits theaters on Dec. 17.

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