As someone who has been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s entire filmography for nearly three decades now (was Cronos really released in the early ’90s? Egads.) and knowing what a cinephile he is, I was excited to see his take on Nightmare Alley, William Lindsay Gresham’s novel that was previously adapted by Edmund Goulding in his unforgettable noir about the dangers of man’s pursuit of power that has gone on to become a bona fide cinematic classic since its release. Thankfully, del Toro’s efforts do not disappoint here. Nightmare Alley may not be del Toro’s most provocative work, nor does it have that intangible, unexpected spark of storytelling ingenuity that I’ve enjoyed in some of his other filmic projects like The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, and the aforementioned Cronos. But what I really loved about del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is that it felt like his own intoxicating love letter to a bygone era in Hollywood, as well as a gorgeously haunting cautionary tale as old as time that features incredible performances from both Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett.
At the start of Nightmare Alley, we’re introduced to Stanton Carlisle (Cooper), a drifter who ends up taking a job as a carny after winning the approval of the ragbag outfit’s owner, Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe). As Stanton immerses himself in this new world of freakshows and mysticism, he quickly finds ways to earn his keep and make a few friends along the way. This includes a young performer named Molly (Rooney Mara), who has an electrocution act, a psychic named Zeena (Toni Collette), and her mentalist husband, Pete (David Strathairn), who eagerly shares some of his tricks of the trade with eager learner Stanton. As his ambitions begin to outgrow the dusty alleyways of Clem’s carnival, Stanton convinces Molly to run away with him to start a new life, and the young lovers set out to make a name for themselves outside of the carnival world.
Two years later, we catch up with Stanton and Molly as they thrill audiences nightly with their own feats of mentalism, unaware that a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Blanchett) has been sizing up their act for some time now and knows they’re pulling one over with their supposedly psychic powers. Lilith decides to get in on the con, too, and arranges to have Stanton perform his tricks for several high-powered men of prominence, including ruthless businessman Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), who is looking to make peace with his ultra-violent past. But Stanton quickly finds himself in over his head while dealing with Ezra, jeopardizing everything that he and Molly have worked to build together, and he’s just one con gone wrong away from losing everything, including his life, when his own thirst for prestige gets out of hand.
Clocking in at two and a half hours, Nightmare Alley (2021) feels like two separate stories brought together into one cohesive narrative that wants us to fall in love with and be repulsed by its main protagonist in equal measure. Cooper is up for the challenge, though, and the way he effortlessly commands any scene he’s in demonstrates an actor who is at the top of his game here. And while it may be Stanton’s rise and fall that continues to reel you in as a viewer throughout Nightmare Alley, there are so many other elements at play, plus a handful of colorful supporting characters to boot, that make this a wholly worthwhile journey from start to finish.
In terms of the technical aspects of Nightmare Alley, there may not be a genre filmmaker working today who is better at building cinematic worlds than del Toro, and his latest is yet another showcase of his passion for details and creating immersive viewing experiences alongside some of the best artists in the industry, where you can’t help but get swept up in their work. For his last few projects, del Toro has utilized the talents of cinematographer Dan Laustsen to create some truly stunning cinematic endeavors, but I think what Laustsen manages to do with a camera in Nightmare Alley is truly the DP’s best work to date, as the camera often floats through each scene with effortless grace, and the way Laustsen frames the visages of each performer throughout the film is truly masterful.
Tamara Deverell’s production design is yet another highlight of Nightmare Alley that does a wonderful job of not only making these environments feel fully realized but also wholly lived in as well. That might not seem like a tough thing to do, but as someone who relishes filmmaking details, I could have spent hours combing through the tents and stages of Clem’s carnival. I also loved how in the latter half of Nightmare Alley, the clean lines and the architectural forms we see in so many of the sets and environments are reflective of the themes of where these characters are at both mentally and physically at that point in the story (that statement will make more sense once you see the film for yourself—trust me).
As a whole, there’s so much that I loved about Nightmare Alley, and I honestly cannot wait to watch it again for so many reasons, but the biggest just might be to see Blanchett and Cooper square off against each other for some incredibly fascinating scenes that explore both gender roles of that era and the power dynamic between one character who thinks they have the upper hand and another who most definitely does have the upper hand. And while Nightmare Alley may not rank at the top of my list of favorite del Toro joints (it’s definitely top five, though), I think his latest film is a perfect showcase that proves he’s a visual storytelling master who is now working at the top of his game and clearly has nothing but pure, unfettered admiration for the magic of movies and movie-making.
Movie Score: 4/5
[Photo Credit: Above photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved]