‘Nightmare Alley’ Review – ‘An Endlessly Intriguing Grim Fairytale’


When charismatic but down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) endears himself to clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her has-been mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn) at a traveling carnival, he crafts a golden ticket to success, using this newly acquired knowledge to grift the wealthy elite of 1940s New York society. With the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) loyally by his side, Stanton plots to con a dangerous tycoon (Richard Jenkins) with the aid of a mysterious psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who might be his most formidable opponent yet.

Greed is a hell of a drug. When an abundance of something highly favorable is up for grabs, you will see the true colors of those around you as well as yourself. Are you a hero or a villain? Perhaps it’s a bit more grey, however, it’s often a matter of perspective because we all have our reasons why we make the choices that we do. That being said, you know whether or not your intentions are good or not. Or do you? Even the most self-aware person can be blinded by their own wants and needs sometimes resulting in repugnant behavior. Unfortunately, the only way to derail the detrimental behavior when you’re too far gone is to take a major loss. Whether it’s loved ones walking out of your life, financial ruin, or something more gruesome, occasionally, it takes the world crumbling around you to get you to take notice of what’s important and where you went wrong. Or you are the villain of your own story and if that’s the case, good luck to you.

“Absolute truth… I can do that.”

From the marvelously macabre mind of Guillermo del Toro, Nightmare Alley is an endlessly intriguing grim fairytale. Ignited by a furious fire and burning flesh, this film noir is immediately an appetizer for the eyes before the feast that is to come. In usual del Toro form, he delivers a tale that is as dreadful as it is pleasing to witness. Never quite knowing what is going to happen next, who means well, or when everything is going to go awry, the film gifts us a lingering sense of anxiety that continues to heighten with every decision our protagonist, Stanton makes. Filled with monsters, oddities, and hustlers galore, it’s a perfect representation of our world, one big con. Nothing is what it seems to be, but if you allow yourself to be swept up in the illusion, it’s exactly what you expect it to be. When everyone and everything is corrupt, what is real? That’s one of the many questions this film floods the mind with. This dark story is one of identity, hubris, calamity, and greed. On a level, the film is very cerebral and poetic. It leaves you with much to discuss and plenty to ponder long after the credits have rolled. The cinematography is amazing. Coupled with the score and production design, every scene is incredibly palpable. With its star-studded cast, ghastly imagery, and entertaining writing, Nightmare Alley is one to experience. I had fun trying to figure out what drove Stanton and what his past held. Its rewatchability is high.

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

Pacing & Pop

Despite its lengthy runtime, the film flies by quicker than you’d expect. Its pacing is exactly what you want for a tale such as this. It’s a great mix of story and excitement. It never lingers too long, leaving just enough mystery to keep your attention. What popped for me was the alluring and fantastic cinematography. The film wouldn’t have the same effect without the level of skill that was brought to the table.

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

Characters & Chemistry

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn

The most interesting thing about Stanton (Bradley Cooper) is, I honestly don’t think he sees anything wrong with anything he’s done. He only knows one way to live and that is to survive by any means. And Cooper played him very well as he goes through many transformations. The performance that stood out to me was that of Cate Blanchett. In a world full of people with sketchy pasts and even sketchier present lives, she may be the most menacing and inscrutable. She is very much the femme fatale archetype and delivers a hauntingly seductive Doctor Lilith Ritter. When observing evil and evil acts, Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) has to be the evilest committing a truly atrocious act.  As expected, Dafoe really brings the character to life in a chilling way. All you can think is, how can he do this to someone? And, why is he so pleased about it? Rooney Mara’s Molly appears to be the purest of them all. While still hustling people like everyone else, there’s something special that Stanton sees in her. The best chemistry is definitely between Cooper and Blanchett, and luckily that is what we get an abundance of during the second half of the film.

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Nightmare Alley releases in theaters on December 17, 2021. Stay safe and enjoy.

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Guillermo del Toro & Kim Morgan

Producers: Guillermo del Toro, p.g.a., J. Miles Dale, p.g.a., Bradley Cooper, p.g.a

Director of Photography: Dan Laustsen, ASC, DFF

Music: Nathan Johnson

Production Design: Tamara Deverell

Rated: R

Runtime: 2h 30m

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q81Yf46Oj3s]

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