Nightmare Alley Review

PLOT: A drifter finds himself drawn to the world of carnies and sideshow entertainers. When he discovers his own talent for tricking people into thinking he can communicate with the other side, he ends up on a very dangerous and deceitful path.

REVIEW: The 1947 drama Nightmare Alley is a fascinating blend of melodrama in the shade of noir. The original feature, directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power, was met with mixed reviews and a less than stellar box office. Like many other films that didn’t quite earn a classic status until decades later, the story of a desperate grifter who gets in over his head was prime for a reinvention. And who better to take on the provocative world of carnies than Guillermo del Toro? Much like the director’s previous work, the film is a sumptuous display of intoxicating visuals. The impressive cast features Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, and many more. It’s a rich tapestry of erupting violence within a haunting tale filled with a sense of dread and occasionally wonder.

Bradley Cooper is Stan, a man running from his past. While we aren’t quite sure what secrets he keeps, his memories of a burning home seem to haunt his dreams. One day the drifter finds himself wandering through the dreamlike vision of a traveling carnival. He convinces Clem Hoately (Dafoe) to let him help out and become part of the crew. Stan discovers something special with mind reader Zeena Krumbein (Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). Intrigued by the grift the couple has, Stan attempts to learn all he can from Pete. All the while, the con man begins to fall in love with the sweet Molly (Mara) and realizes they should go off on their own. After a tragic death occurs, he convinces her to run away with him. Yet when a mysterious psychiatrist enters their lives a few years after their time as carnies, things take a devious and twisted turn for the couple.

Give a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro a rich world filled with sideshow freaks and bright and riveting colors, and you have something special. Along with DP Dan Lausten, del Toro brings this feature a vibrant life with bold and vivid carnival colors. When a character called “The Geek” runs off into the shadows, Cooper’s walk through the house of horrors is a vision of sheer horrific beauty. Several moments are so intensely compelling that it’s easy to get lost in the fantastical nature of it all. While the second act steps away from the imaginative carnival imagery, it is still quite stunning as we enter a world of powerful men with horrible secrets to exploit. As dark as this can get, there is always a spark on display. One of the most shocking sequences in the film is also one of the most impressive to look at, one involving a risky plan to fraud the wealthy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).

Bradley Cooper is the perfect choice for Nightmare Alley‘s anti-hero, Stan. The actor manages to create on-screen chemistry with Mara, Blanchett, and Collette, yet effortlessly captures the darkness of his character. When it comes to the three leading ladies, Mara brings a sense of wonder to Molly, while Collette gives a superb performance as a woman who is far more kind than you’d give her credit for considering her profession. Then there is Cate Blanchett. The on-screen heat that both Cooper and her share is most assuredly intense. And it’s easy to believe that he’d fall for her. You’ll also find moments where Dafoe, Perlman, Jenkins, and Strathairn steal the thunder. What an exceptional group of actors del Toro has collected here! More importantly, each of the talented performers has a moment or two to shine.

As wild and beautiful as Nightmare Alley is, the near two and a half hour runtime may be slightly excessive, but not problematic. Perhaps throughout the middle of the film, you may find a moment or two that may lack the urgency of everything that came before and after. Even still, the pace manages to offer a couple of worthwhile character moments. The film isn’t overtly violent for the first half, but as the cinematic conclusion comes closer, you’ll be shocked by some of the quick bouts of horrors that shade the final moments. If you are paying attention, you may even get a sense of where the story is heading. Even if there may be a slight bit of predictability here, it’s well worth the ride once you get there.

GORE: While the blood doesn’t flow excessively, this entertaining thriller creepily delves into darkness especially near the end. The shot-off part of an ear is certainly icky, and you’ll find a couple of other moments that are quick but shocking. While used sparingly, the violence and bloodshed work perfectly in the confines of this cool and colorful feature.

BOTTOM LINE: Nightmare Alley is a pulpy blend of atmosphere and thrills. The rich characters and the solid performances from the entire cast help bring this seedy world to life. Bradley Cooper gives a terrific show as a man with more than a few skeletons in his closet. And considering the talent which he’s surrounded by, it only continues to prove what an impressive actor Cooper is. Even still, it’s Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, and Toni Collette who keep this haunting tale as approachable as it is. All three of these fine actresses help bring a sense of mystery to this fantastical feature. Guillermo del Toro has captured the mystical quality of an old-fashioned carnival to stunning fruition. It’s yet another success story for the visionary filmmaker, one that is inventive, as well as a nice throwback to the mystery and the romance of classic film noir. If you feel like wandering down this Nightmare Alley, you’ll likely find yourself fascinated by the secrets del Toro’s latest keeps.

Nightmare Alley



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