Nightmare Alley Review

Nightmare Alley image of mentalist Stan (Bradley Cooper) blindfolded

Nightmare Alley is a dark, crafted noir-style drama/thriller. Director Guillermo del Toro has an eye for submerging us in dark worlds where even when spirits do not appear onscreen, there is always something lurking in the shadows and the light. The film is a remake and while the world is entrancing, Bradley Cooper’s acting, a bloated runtime, and heavy foreshadowing that hands the ending to audiences at the beginning harm the film.

Bradley Cooper plays Stan, a new addition to the carnival circuit, escaping his past. While Stan befriends many carnies and even has a friends with benefits relationship with married clairvoyant, Zeena (Toni Collette), and learns mentalism from her husband Pete (David Strathairn). Soon Stan develops the mentalist skills to fool the wealthy elite and targets a dangerous mark for a big payday. 

It’s Guillermo del Toro’s World That Stands Out The Most

Nightmare Alley image of Zeena (Toni Collette) and Stan (Bradley Cooper)
Bradley Cooper and Toni Collette in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Guillermo del Toro creates worlds that you both wish you were in and shudder at the thought of inhabiting. From Pan’s Labyrinth to Crimson Peak Guillermo del Toro makes luscious thrive in darkness. Nightmare Alley is no exception. The world is in the gritty, rugged world of carnies. Carnivals were often disturbing grotesqueries not because of the exhibits, but the abuses those who looked different suffered. I still remember 1932’s Freaks. Nightmare Alley has a similar person to the detestable Cleopatra in Stan, who believes he is better than the lowly carnival circuit. 

There’s little substance to Nightmare Alley, though the bleak world is spell-binding. Few characters develop beyond their assigned roles. The foreshadowing was heavy-handed and most viewers will  predict the outcome with ease thanks to its obvious presentation. There are movies that give blatant signals as to how they end, but I watch because I want to see the stops along the character’s destructive or enlightening path. Nightmare Alley reminds me of those films, but less entertaining. 

Too Long With A Boring Lead

Nightmare Alley image of Stan (Bradley Cooper) and Molly (Mara Rooney)
Nightmare Alley image of Stan (Bradley Cooper) and Molly (Rooney Mara) photo cr. Kerry Hayes courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The 140-minute runtime does no favors for Nightmare Alley. There was so much in the film that felt unnecessary and Bradley Cooper doesn’t hold attention as much as the character’s around him and the unfolding events. This makes the film tortuous at times as this journey is through Bradley Cooper’s Stan. This isn’t to say Bradley Cooper is a bad actor, but that he feels miscast in this film with periphery performances standing out more than his lead character despite their own superficiality. Cate Blanchett is wonderful as the creepy doctor Lilith Ritter. Rooney Mara’s performance feels a bit hollow however that may be due to the lack of chemistry between her and Bradley Cooper’s character. 

Still Glad I Watched

Nightmare Alley image of Stan (Bradley Cooper) and Clem (Willem Dafoe)
Willem Dafoe and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes courtesy 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Ultimately, I enjoyed Nightmare Alley more for Guillermo del Toro’s world than the content. The direction is great, most of the characters are interesting, though more surface than substance, but the film would have done better with a shorter runtime and someone else playing Stan. Nightmare Alley’s misty, textured world is captivating, but the characters lack that same quality. If you are a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s, like me, you will want to give this a view. But severely temper your expectations. This does not affect my joy watching his movies and I excitedly await his next film. 

Nightmare Alley trailer via Youtube from Searchlight Pictures

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