‘Nightmare Alley’ is a Wonderfully Dark Reminder that Everyone is Horrible


Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley.” (Courtesy of searchlightpictures.com)

By Luke Jackson


I’ve always had a slight obsession with sleight of hand magic tricks. The moment of disbelief in someone’s eyes when they’ve successfully been tricked is insanely satisfying. For a split second it’s like they believe in a fantastical world where magic is real. Guillermo Del Toro takes this feeling and runs a marathon with it in his latest feature “Nightmare Alley.”

Del Toro over the years has cultivated an expectation of the fantastic in his films. From the Pale Man to the humanoid amphibian, supernatural monsters are often lurking in the dark corners of Del Toro’s dark realities. “Nightmare Alley” expertly plays with this expectation as we come to realize that the true monsters aren’t supernatural at all.

A Thrill to Watch

The film follows the gritty Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) as he learns to transform his talent for reading people into a mentalist act. He is aided in the tricks of this trade by a group of seasoned carnival workers — each talented manipulators in their own right. Carlisle slowly descends into madness as he uses his talent to fly too close to the sun.

Masterfully, Del Toro guides us through the stylized settings of carnivals and mansions. Everything is glossy and externally beautiful but hiding within is filth and darkness. The cinematography is purposeful, precise and an absolute thrill to watch. Each item and actor on screen begs for attention and it truly feels larger than life. This feeling is aided by an absolutely stellar ensemble cast: Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman and Rooney Mara provide incredible atmosphere as carnival workers who are experts in their trade.

I was absolutely taken with the carnival setting and the characters found there. So when the film moved to new settings in the second act I felt as though it took a hit. However, it is in the unfamiliar territory of big ballroom shows that we meet psychiatrist and expert exploiter Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Blanchett, of course, provides a powerhouse of a performance which is so good that Cooper struggles to keep up.

A Slow Burn

While the scenes between Ritter and Carlisle are masterclasses in acting performances they are often a touch repetitive. Watching the two characters scheme and compete to get the upper hand on one another is interesting but it slightly overstays its welcome.

At times “Nightmare Alley” becomes dry as we anticipate its next move, filled with a few predictable reveals that are given more buildup and anticipation than is earned. That being said, “Nightmare Alley” has stuck with me every second since exiting the theater. It’s a thrilling, slow burn of a character study that I can’t seem to get out of my head. There is so much to chew and dwell on that the further I am away from the credits the better I think the movie was.

At its heart “Nightmare Alley” is a wonderfully dark film which shows us that no matter how good of a snake oil salesman we are there is always someone better out there. It reminds us that if something seems too good to be true it probably is. “Nightmare Alley” will happily tell you that everything’s terrible and everyone’s a monster. Happy New Year from Guillermo Del Toro.


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