By George Bate and Josh Reilly
Acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro follows up his Academy Award winning The Shape of Water with Nightmare Alley, a polished and menacing film that, unfortunately, falls short of greatness. Nightmare Alley is based on the book of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, which was the basis for the 1947 film Nightmare Alley starring Tyrone Power. del Toro’s adaptation of the psychological thriller follows Stan Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper, an up-and-coming carny, whose ambitions are as great as the darkness lurking within.
It goes without saying at this point, but Guillermo del Toro is truly a masterful filmmaker. Few directors are able to craft a tale that feels simultaneously, and often paradoxically, so contemporary yet classical. And, on this basis, del Toro succeeds with Nightmare Alley. From the sprawling narrative to intricate production design to heightened performances, the film feels like it’s from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
del Toro, however, also leans into the source material here – Nightmare Alley is a true neo-noir psychological thriller. The film methodologically takes its time; del Toro is never in a rush to propel his audience into the structure of a narrative. It’s with this storytelling (which largely dominates Nightmare Alley’s first half) that the film excels. Especially if one came into this movie having no prior exposure to trailers or source material, it would be very difficult to pin down what it’s actually about. Is this just a tale of a man running away from a dark past? Are there supernatural elements? Our lead character Stan (Cooper) is shrouded in mystery and, with the exception of a single ominous and mysterious flashback, we’re given no background on his character for much of the film. Interestingly, it even takes quite a while into the film until Cooper even utters a line of dialogue (which we’ll get to in a second). All of this culminates in an understated sense of tension for much of Nightmare Alley’s first half. It’s mostly uneventful, but captures your attention nevertheless.
Unfortunately, the pressure valve of tension in Nightmare Alley eventually releases in a rather flat and meandering second half. By the time it becomes clearer what the film is about, it’s hard not lose some interest in the narrative. And even the ‘what’ of the statement ‘what the film is about’ seems to be lacking. del Toro’s excellent directing, the gorgeous cinematography and production design, and solid performances from the entire cast can only carry the film so far. Nightmare Alley is crying out to be something more, but, ultimately, it lacks momentum and substance.
That being said, Nightmare Alley deftly explores a number of intriguing themes and features, perhaps, one of 2021’s best movie endings. The film balances quite a few lofty themes and motifs: alcohol use, the American dream, fractured paternalistic relationships, how we treat others. And, amidst a film that drags throughout, it triumphs in its exploration of these films. Nightmare Alley is a film that will stay with you, largely due to these themes and its excellent, poetic, disturbing ending. This may not be the scariest film del Toro has ever made, but its ending is certainly the most haunting.
Nightmare Alley is a beautifully made, polished exercise in cinematic delayed gratification that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite come together. The performances, production design, cinematography, and overall directing are some of the year’s best. The way in which the narrative unfolds, however, is a different story. Nonetheless, Nightmare Alley intelligently and impressively explores a number of moving themes, and concludes with a poignant ending that will stay with you.
Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight