Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film is a tragic tale with a predictable end.
Movie Content Warning: There are moments of gore that are shocking but they are short and don’t define the movie.
“Nightmare Alley” explores the twisted life of a carney who bites off more than he can chew. It is almost two separate films, the first showing the meteoric rise of Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle, and the second showing his tragic downfall.
If you want to know what kind of man Stanton Carlisle is, the film wastes absolutely no time in telling you. Anybody who is lighting a body and house on fire in the opening scene is probably seedy, something that is only highlighted by him not saying a single word for the first 15 minutes of the movie. If you want to know why he is doing any of that, I am sorry to say that you’ll be left wanting.
Guillermo Del Toro, the director, has built a reputation as an expert at weaving unsettling characters or creatures into prominent roles in his stories. While “Nightmare Alley” does this a bit more subtly than say, “The Shape of Water,” it is also a bit more jarring because of how plausible it is. The creature in this story is a man, a desperate one, but a man all the same. A man who has been manipulated and borderline tortured to the brink of insanity, and what’s worse is that at different points, multiple people are convinced to become what they so eloquently call a “Geek.” All of this is done to simply make people feel better about themselves.
That seems to be the purpose of this film; watching someone slowly ruin themselves just so the viewer can think “well at least I’m not them.” In that way, Del Toro is almost mocking the viewer, which seems like an odd choice. Nothing will surprise you in this movie either as the foreshadowing is both frequent and obvious.
While the purpose and story of “Nightmare Alley” leave a lot to be desired, there are definitely still impressive features that make it palatable. First, the set design is excellent. Every scene in the carnival truly transports you there. It’s chaotic and diverse, with things pulling your eye in every direction. Despite all of this, the camera work ensures that you are seeing what Del Toro wants you to see.
The cast is chock-full of recognizable faces in small roles, but the headliners, Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Toni Collette are the true draw. Cooper goes from showing off how acting can happen without talking to seemingly never stopping. He can show you that he’s the smartest guy in the room in one scene and then the face of desperation in the next. Blanchett is flawless in her role of Dr. Lillith Ritter. Most characters understandably defer to Cooper, but Blanchett always controls her scenes. Mara’s character Molly feels like she was written by a man, meaning she is only there for Cooper’s character to use, but she does her job admirably. Collette felt underused for her talents but is otherwise excellent. There are so many other talented actors in this film that all prop up this predictable movie.
“Nightmare Alley” tells a story that made me ask “why?” but it was consistently interesting. That is largely a credit to the preposterously talented cast and an experienced director knowing what to do. Technically, the movie is incredible but without a statement or purpose, it falls short of Del Toro’s previous works.
[“Nightmare Alley” is streaming on HBO Max and Hulu.]