Crime Drama

Review: ‘Nightmare Alley’ is a Slow-Burn Noir Mystery that’s More Style than Substance

December 16, 2021Ben MK

Best known for movies like Hellboy, Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro is a filmmaker whose name has become synonymous with tales of gothic horror and stories featuring nightmarish and fantastical creatures. With the appropriately named Nightmare Alley, however, del Toro is indulging his love for the film noir genre. And while fans of the cult favorite director may not find any of the usual monsters they've come to expect from his movies, there's no shortage of figurative monsters lurking in the shadows of his latest effort, which sees Bradley Cooper playing a man trying to outrun the demons of his past, but who can't escape the deadly pull of his own ambitions.

A remake of the 1947 film of the same name, the story follows Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a drifter with few friends and a man of even fewer words, who leaves behind his old life for a job working the grounds of a travelling carnival. Run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), the carnival is a place where everyday folks come to gawk in wonder at such acts as Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), whose psychic abilities seem to defy explanation, and Bruno the Strongman (Ron Perlman), whose possesses strength beyond ordinary men. However, it's the carnival's geek show — a dehumanizing attraction in which audience members gather to watch a deranged man bite the heads off live chicken — that somehow speaks to Stan the most. And as viewers will discover, it's a connection that finally comes together in the movie's final moments, when things more or less come full circle for him.

Getting to that point, unfortunately, proves to be something of a chore, as the pace of the film combined with the lack of any apparent narrative direction might leave some moviegoers squirming impatiently in their seats. Yes, we see Stan strike up a relationship with Zeena and sideshow performer Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), becoming the apprentice of the former before eventually running off with the latter to the big city, where he plans to make a name for himself by headlining his own mentalist stage act — but where is the story headed? It's a question viewers might find themselves asking aloud, even when Stan meets his match in the form of a mysterious psychologist named Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who happens to be in the audience of his show one night, and who enlists his expertise in sleight of hand and deception to bilk her wealthy clients out of their fortunes.

It's not until Nightmare Alley's final act, however, that the plot finally begins to take shape. For when Lilith and Stan's daring scheme to convince a ruthless business tycoon (Richard Jenkins) that his dead daughter is trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave backfires, it sets into motion a series of violent events, all of which culminate in an ending worthy of the genre's best. Suffice to say, it's a conclusion that almost makes up for the movie's aimless first two-thirds. Ultimately, though, it's still too little, too late, as neither del Toro himself nor Cooper, Blanchett and Mara can save the result from feeling like an exercise in style over substance.

It all amounts to something of a let-down for fans of the Spanish filmmaker. Yet, despite the fact that Nightmare Alley fails to conjure up the same spark as the majority of del Toro's other works, the film is by no means lacking in redeeming qualities. From its lavish production and costume design to its gorgeous cinematography and spellbinding sound design, the movie still makes for quite the experience on the big screen. As for the story itself, it's best to temper your expectations — otherwise, you might feel like you yourself have been swindled.

Nightmare Alley releases December 17th, 2021 from Searchlight Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 30 min.

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