Nightmare Alley (2021) Review
Updated: Mar 9
NEO-Noir is one of my favourite film genres; being able to dive into modern landscapes while also adapting the nostalgic style of the 1940s is always a pleasure to see when it comes around every now and again, with acclaimed-director Guillermo del Toro being one of the best in the business to bring this vision to life. However, while Nightmare Alley confidently carries the swagger of neo-noir, its decision for ambiguity over subtlety is a controversial one that even I'm still unsure as to whether it paid off or not.
Based on William Lindsay Gresham's novel of the same name, Nightmare Alley follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious carny wanting more out of his one-trick life. His skills for emotional manipulation helps he and his partner, Molly (Rooney Mara), travel to the big city where they learn how dangerous swindling people with dreams of false hope can be - especially after meeting Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who could be more dangerous than he is.
Being the second adaption of this award-winning novel is nothing to be ashamed of as despite the film's lack of originality in terms of overall plot, Del Toro turns the script on its head by introducing his unique style of movie making present in previous works such as Shape of Water and Pacific Rim. Various sceneries are utilised to emphasise the ever-changing demeanour of Stanton - mentally and physically. Beginning as a lonesome traveller searching for simple work, he arrives at a dark carnival where he is treated with distain until finding a light amidst the darkness in the form of Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) who offers him a job which satisfies his needs. As the plot develops, Carlisle's ambitions grow, shifting the scenes around him and changing his character for the worse as his life worsens - much like the dampened weather surrounding him for the remainder of the film. This use of storytelling perfectly sums up what Nightmare Alley succeeds in best: meaningful landscapes and stunning cinematography that never feels redundant or misused.
With such a stellar cast of actors, its hard to imagine the performances being anything but incredible, and unsurprisingly, they're incredible. Bradley Cooper does a wonderful job playing Stanton, shifting his persona from a simple, likeable carny to a man willing to do anything to get ahead in life. Rooney Mara's performance as Molly perfectly compliments Cooper as Mara becomes increasingly more relatable and likeable as the film progresses, making the audience feel for her position as their problems continually increase. Other standouts include Dafoe, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins and David Strathairn, but if you're looking for the film's premier actor, look no further than Cate Blanchett. Her performance was littered with personality and mischievousness which perfectly suited her role as an improper psychiatrist that spent much of the film alongside Cooper's descending character.
All in all there isn't too much to say about Nightmare Alley without giving away alot of the film's subtext and plot. Del Toro's signature style of filmmaking lends the movie to plenty of wonderous cinematography suited for the story being told. The severe lack of subtlety and predictability may not justify the film's overly-long runtime of 150 minutes, but Nightmare Alley makes up for these minor faults with meaningful characters, wonderous sceneries and an ambiguous ending that will leave viewers wanting more by the time the eerie credits roll.