Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn
Run Time: 150 mins
Nightmare Alley is visionary director Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up film after his Best Picture win for The Shape of Water in 2017. This film represents a departure for the director in many ways. Del Toro is most famed for his fantastical elements with monsters and creatures crafted using practical effects forming prominent components of his work. Nightmare Alley is not only an adaptation of the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Grensham but also a remake as there was a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power.
This film noir psychological thriller is initially set in 1939 where we witness Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) burning a house down with a dead body inside and takes up a job at a carnival. The carnival is run by Clem (Willem Defoe) and is home to a cohort of eclectic characters. Stanton works with a clairvoyant Madam Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Straithairn) and begins to learn the coded language they use to communicate in their act. He also falls in love with performer, Molly (Rooney Mara) and they contemplate the possibility of starting their own act. Where the film heads to next is ultimately inevitable as Stanton keeps trying his luck.
Nightmare Alley features a typically luscious production and set design and is buoyed by a heavy and committed central turn from Bradley Cooper, who plays against type in what is one of his best performances. Its conclusion is poetic and satisfying, even if it is a little predictable and Del Toro really captures the minutiatie of the film noir aesthetic, which he is clearly in adoration of. It’s not a problem that the film lacks a signature monster as Del Toro revels in the macabre and peppers in some disturbing and powerful imagery throughout, as well as recurring motifs such as circles.
Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is expectedly satisfying, hanging onto shots for as long as possible to create tension and he fully takes advantage of the rich production design. Despite having to replace the ever-dependable Alexandre Desplat late in the game, Knives Out composer Nathan Johnson’s score more than takes its inspiration from classic film noir and makes for a fitting accompaniment.
With the caveat that this review is based on a first viewing, the film does feel strangely uninvolving and it is difficult to empathise with virtually all of the supporting characters as their personalities are underdeveloped. It’s difficult to buy the central relationship between Stanton and Molly and considering that in many ways, Molly is the moral compass of the film, her lack of development is disappointing. The third act of the film centres on Stanton assisting a dangerous but influential individual, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) reunite and find closure with a loved one but again, Del Toro omits to explore Grindle’s perspective and his characterisation is one dimensional. Considering that Nightmare Alley’s overarching narrative is dependent on its supporting characters, the fact that Del Toro doesn’t grant audiences the opportunity to empathise with their problems, it seems a strange creative choice. Nightmare Alley also lacks the cohesive pacing and energy of the rest of his filmography. This is a sizeable film at 150 minutes that is evenly split into two timeframes. Its second half fares better than the first but the film could very easily lose half an hour and that would have tightened everything up – there is no reason for the film to be this long.
Nightmare Alley is ultimately a flawed follow-up from Guillermo Del Toro. There is lots to like here with a powerful Bradley Cooper performance, an intense atmosphere and Del Toro’s admiration for the material is very clear. I just wish it delved deeper into its supporting characters and it was more engaging. Del Toro is one of my favourite filmmakers and I’ll certainly give Nightmare Alley another watch as I want to like more than I do. I’m certainly glad that the film exists as it provides an original service for the film noir aesthetic but it is ultimately an interesting yet deeply flawed film.