Nightmare Alley [Review]

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Guillermo Del Toro’s rendition of Nightmare Alley is good-looking, packs a star-studded cast (with Blanchett, Colette, and Mara stealing the scene), and contains a lovely score by Nathan Johnson, but its first two acts are a bit of a drag. Thank heavens that the third one is worth the long, long wait. 

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of director Guillermo del Toro is monsters. Of course, all those monsters are not, particularly evil per se. Still, they show the different lenses on how to view humanity: the pale man in Pan’s Labyrinth, the amphibian in The Shape of Water, or Santi from The Devil’s Backbone. Del Toro has taken us as outsiders into new or familiar worlds and added a balanced sense of fantasy with darkness. By the end of his best films, he shows us those same creatures are not the greater evil; it is humanity and the world’s reality instead. In his latest work, a remake of the classic 1947 film and novel Nightmare Alley, he goes more in-depth with humankind’s grating violence and severity by using the noir genre.

Set in 1940s New York, down-and-out Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) endears himself to a crystal gazer oracle Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette) and her has-been mind reader Pete (David Strathairn) at a traveling carnival along with Bruno (Ron Perlman) and Molly (Rooney Mara). Stanton manages to craft a golden ticket to success using his conman skills and knowledge to swindle the wealthy elite. But, one day, with the loyal Molly by his side, he wants to deceive the big fish, tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), with the help of Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who might be his most intimidating adversary yet. There is a question surrounding the film: “Is he a man or beast?” This time, there are no monsters; there is something even worse: the sheer cruelty that is humanity. Much more malevolence is yet to be discovered from ourselves than actual bloodied behemoths.

Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

The characters involved in this story of deceit, manipulation, addiction, and the darkness of man know that something terrifying is lurking behind every decision that one of them takes, and it all leads up to the tragic fate of Stanton Carlisle. The 1947 adaptation of Nightmare Alley captured the hallucinatory feel of the novel, even though its illusions are frightening and disastrous. Unfortunately, even though Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen add some flair and glossy style to the screen, it feels like it is missing something in terms of substance, entertainment, and purpose of this remake. It doesn’t add much to the original narrative, and it also straight-up copies a couple of scenes from it. In addition, the screenplay tries to overcomplicate the story, which its core is straightforward yet meaty, by extending each segment longer than is necessary. Thanks to this, it leaves the film’s first two acts to be quite overlong. It drags for a surmountable amount of time until it reaches the third act.

In its third act, that’s when things start to click perfectly, but you have already spent so much time waiting for some excitement that when it arrives, it isn’t as impactful as it needs to be. This is the first time Guillermo del Toro crosses over to the noir subgenre; the majority of his work centers around the supernatural. Nevertheless, he doesn’t know how to handle the tone as the movie goes from section to section, from building castles in the air to the swindler’s keening. There’s also a lack of tension throughout the picture, even when things tighten for Stan and company. The dramatic momentum evolves at the finale rather than slowly building up throughout its entirety. Through the rough and tumbles of these directorial and writing battles, many elements work well, starting with the set pieces combined with the cinematography by Dan Laustsen. 

It is a good-looking film, and it would be an understatement to say so because when you add the different rooms, buildings, and tableaus and add in the camera movement, it takes you straight into the 1940s, in both the grimy and refined divisions. Unfortunately, Cooper doesn’t do much to stand tall amongst the star-studded cast in the lead role and depends way too much on facial expressions instead of pure emotion. However, he does display the kind of “braggadocio” required for him to sell the role of a man who always believes he’s the smartest guy in the room. And although he is in almost every scene in the film, the supporting cast outshines him, and you wish to see more of them, especially the Carol-duo of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett as well as Toni Collette and Richard Jenkins.

Why didn’t this amount to something greater if Guillermo del Toro had the performances, production design, cinematography, and score in good effect? The question can be answered through its intention and reason. What’s the reason behind a new Nightmare Alley adaptation, and why now? Del Toro spoke eloquently on his love of noir in several interviews. It is also noticeable in the way he expresses himself that he indeed was influenced by some of the subgenre’s most famous works (Double Indemnity, The Night of the Hunter, and The Big Combo, just to name a few). Yet, there is no intention of telling this story other than telling a classic parable once again because he can do so. Nightmare Alley proposes several questions regarding humanity, most of which the 1947 version already did, but it makes the error of not answering them, nor does it not want to. Film noir’s virtue works and invokes emotion best when a purpose and objective are met with the percipient themes, which this sadly does not.