Review: “Nightmare Alley” (2021)

If Guillermo Del Toro’s previous feature film, “The Shape of Water,” was about the perseverance of love and humanizing monsters, his latest movie, “Nightmare Alley,” is about as opposite to that as one can get. Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, which was also adapted into a 1947 film of the same name, “Nightmare Alley” follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a drifter who falls in with a traveling carnival. With his Southern drawl and seemingly innocent charm, Carlisle gradually ingratiates himself into the performers’ ranks and harnesses what secrets he gleams from them for his own ascent to fame and fortune.

Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle in “Nightmare Alley”

Carlisle is the center of the story, and while Cooper often feels miscast- he just doesn’t quite reach the despicable heights requisite for this sort of unlikable character- his performance hits home in the moments where Carlisle is at an emotional low point. Carlisle’s life and career through the film pivot around three remarkable women: Zeena (Toni Collette), an older woman who seduces Carlisle, and whose clairvoyant act she has with her husband inspires Carlisle for an act of his own; Molly (Rooney Mara), the sweet fellow performer who loves him; and Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist who at first tried to dismantle Carlisle’s clairvoyant act with logic, then teams up with him to use both their skills to their mutual advantage. Each of these women turns in powerhouse performances. Mara is completely convincing as the one pure human in this whole story, and Collette steals all her scenes, even if she’s really only present in the first half of the film and the story doesn’t really take advantage of her tarot reading skills in the foreshadowing department. But Blanchett is the standout not only amongst them, but the entire cast. She’s the epitome of the classic femme fatale: smart, cool, stylish, and duplicitous, icy voice and sharp features perfectly married to the physical heat that her mannisms invite. It’s a good thing that she’s so good, along with a vast and more than capable supporting cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn, Ron Perlman, and Mary Steenburgen, because despite having so much going for it, “Nightmare Alley” feels like it’s sorely lacking.

A hallmark of del Toro’s previous work has been the cinematography, from the lush Gothic romance “Crimson Peak” to the mashup of old Hollywood glamor and B movie madness of “The Shape of Water.” But even though previous del Toro collaborator Dan Lausten was the cinematographer for Nightmare Alley, it largely lacks the beauty of those previous movies. It certainly has its moments, like a long shot of Mara’s Molly appearing like a snowy apparition, blood-soaked forearms standing out against the white. But much of “Nightmare Alley” is oddly lit and murky. There’s a difference between making use of stark shadows and not being able to see characters’ faces. Maybe it’s partially due to the fact that it’s color cinematography is just a tad too glossy, but “Nightmare Alley” feels like a movie that is trying too hard to look like a classic noir in the tradition of, for example, the original 1947 film, and largely failing.

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley”

The screenplay for “Nightmare Alley,” which is by del Toro and Kim Morgan, also misses the opportunity to delve further into Carlisle’s mindset. So much of this story is psychological, from the therapy sessions Carlisle has with Lilith to his frequent flashbacks to his checkered past to his scheming as his mind works on the next thing for him, and yet it never feels like we fully get inside his head. In the 1947 film, there’s some question as to Carlisle’s sanity as his misdeeds catch up to him, but there’s no such reckoning here. Del Toro’s film is more another adaptation of Graham’s novel than a remake of that movie, but it’s difficult not to compare the two. Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is superior in some regards- it’s grittier, with moments of extreme violence punctuating the scenes of elegance, and gets to have the dire ending that the 1947 film wasn’t allowed to- and yet, the cynical and cyclical nature of the plot doesn’t hit as hard as it should thanks to its sometimes thinly drawn characters and shoddy visuals. Despite its shortcomings, it’s exciting to see del Toro working in a genre that seems outside of his usual element. In this noir, there are no supernatural occurrences or monstrous creatures; the only monsters here are human.

“Nightmare Alley” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 150 minutes. Rated R.

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