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Film Review

Nightmare Alley

Directed by Guillermo del Toro
From: Searchlight Pictures
Released: 12.17.21
Review by Julian Lytle | December 9, 2021 at 5:30 PM
Grade: A

Basically: A 1940s noir style thriller from a director known for creative monster films.

Nightmare Alley is the story of Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man who is running from his past and ends up becoming a carnie. Stan works hard but wishes for more so he takes all the things he learns and achieves the life he’s always wanted. However, his ambitions start to get ahead of him, which takes him down an unexpected path that might actually be his destiny. 

Photo © Searchlight Pictures / Kerry Hayes

Now, Nightmare Alley isn’t the usual work from Guillermo del Toro. He forgoes his typical amazing monsters and effects for a thriller route. He still plays in horror but the monsters here are just human. Bradley Cooper brings his usual skill to Stan who is a tortured soul. As he enters the carnie world you can see his wonder at all its peculiar people and what they do to sell the show—how they get the marks to buy into this façade. From there, the way Cooper plays Stan’s growth from naivete to ambition is subtle and smart. Yet everything he does falls into the way we see the American Dream. What we think we should have. 

Stan begins to learn mentalism from a washed up alcoholic named Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn) and his wife Zeena (Toni Collette). Pete and Zeena take a liking to Stan and try to teach him the rules so he doesn’t go overboard. But his dreams take over all while he falls in love with Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), a fellow carnie. Mara’s Molly is the girl next door, aw shucks, type from stories of that time. She plays her role so honestly yet with a side of melancholy—it’s not overpowering but there’s just enough to notice. This is countered by Cate Blanchett’s character Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist who becomes interested in Stan once he’s a big deal as a mentalist in a fancy city hotel with Molly. 

Photo © Searchlight Pictures / Kerry Hayes

Del Toro and his collaborators build a wonderful world. The dusty setting of the carnival with gray flattened color yet strong lighting gives great tones and shadows to the actors’ faces. As the characters move to the city, the lighting grows more stark like the noir films of the 30s and 40s. There are dark shadows and changes in focus as the women become softer in the frame than the men. The costuming and make up are top-notch as they mix in and set a tone of dread that fits the era. Nightmare Alley feels new and an homage at the same time, you can see what it references but it also plays into noir tropes and genre. 

There’s so much more I could say about Nightmare Alley but in the end, it’s just a great cinematic experience. Oh, one little shout out: Willem Dafoe kills it as Clement Hoately, the carnival boss. He has all the creepiness he can pull off with so much energy and what feels like glee. 

In the End: Nightmare Alley is a welcome throwback surprise from storied director Guillermo del Toro. A great twist with wonderful performances throughout. 

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