Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley

An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.

Guillermo del Toro’s last film, ‘The Shape of Water’, won Best Picture at the Oscars, so his latest comes with much pressure to live up to the new expectations set on the Mexican director. His follow-up is ‘Nightmare Alley’, a gothic noir about an ambitious carnival worker who is willing to stretch his luck and fortune to breaking point. It features an ensemble cast led by Bradley Cooper as Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle, the aforementioned carny, and can be best described as a psychological thriller that explores the deepest depths of human nature and greed.

Nightmare Alley’ can be broadly split out into two parts that I’d outline as firstly, Stan learning the tricks of the trades at the carnival, and secondly, Stan expanding on those to make more money in the more lucrative environment of upper class New York. The first half focuses on Stan’s arrival at the travelling carnival and his attempts to ingratiate himself with the colourful characters that run various shows and exhibits. This introduces him to several people who will be key in his story; namely Willem Dafoe’s Clem who runs a freak show, Toni Collette’s mystic Zeena and Rooney Mara’s Molly, who he develops an attraction for. Stan borrows aspects from each of these characters to develop his own show which he takes to New York, however he is disregarding of some of the warnings given to him about how far he should take the dark material that he has been developing.

I liked elements of ‘Nightmare Alley’ but thought for the most part it was quite dour and depressing and certainly too long – in some respects it plays out like a grim version of ‘Catch Me If You Can’ where a swindler keeps pushing things too far, but without the humour, pathos or lightness of touch of that movie (one of Spielberg’s best movies of the past 25 years for sure). What I did like was the parts featuring Cate Blanchett, who enters the movie about half way through and dominates the screen with her presence as a mysterious psychiatrist who finds herself drawn to Stan, and the conclusion to this part of the movie was well played out. That said, I was not as gripped by the story as I’d hoped to be and as a result the concluding act didn’t resonate as strongly as intended.

Nightmare Alley’ is more ‘Crimson Peak’ than ‘The Shape of Water’ in the del Toro canon, in that there’s a sense that the story (or the storytelling) isn’t quite strong enough to match up to the undoubtedly intriguing premise and atmospheric tone that del Toro has always been good at conjuring. For whatever reason, it just didn’t connect with me on the same level as ‘The Shape of Water‘ or his earlier works did.

Rating: 3/5

Directed By: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Peter MacNeill, Holt McCallany, Paul Anderson, Mark Povinelli, Clifton Collins Jr., Jim Beaver and Tim Blake Nelson

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