Michael’s review published on Letterboxd:
Nightmare Alley was one of my most anticipated movies of 2021. It is Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, one which is comparatively less horror based compared to the rest of his filmography, and is instead more of a noir. Add on top of that a fantastic cast including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and you have a movie with a lot of potential. It seemed to have been receiving mixed reviews and hadn’t been doing well at the box office, which is a real shame because I actually thought this movie was great.
I didn’t watch the original Nightmare Alley film, nor did I read the book it was based on, I went into this having only seen the trailers. Nightmare Alley is by far Guillermo del Toro’s most grounded film with no fantasy elements whatsoever. “Man is the real monster” seems to be the recurring theme in most of del Toro’s films and that certainly is the case with Alley now that there are no monsters of the fantastical variety to be seen here. With that said, it is a strong contender for del Toro’s darkest movie yet. It is very much a grim and slow burn noir mystery. The premise isn’t completely new, its another “hustler gets in over his head” kind of story, but I was really interested. I found the seedy and sinister story compelling and engaging, and I really liked the psychological aspect to it. The characters were well written and quite interesting, so I was invested throughout. It also has a very memorable and haunting ending, and one of the best scenes from the past year. Darkness aside, the other things that might turn off some people are the pacing and length. The plot is more drawn out than you would think given the premise. For example, if you’ve seen the trailers then you know that Cate Blanchett’s psychiatrist character plays a notable part in the plot, and she does. However, she appears for the first time about over an hour into the movie, so that should give you an idea how slowly the story moves. I don’t have a problem with it being a slow burn, even if there are some pacing issues, especially in the first half. The pacing does help to immerse the audience into the dark atmosphere that it’s building. The first act is definitely slower as it mostly takes place in a carnival setting, however when you’re watching it for the first, time you don’t really know where it is going. However, there is a reason why the movie lingers on these particular scenes earlier on. I think a rewatch would help you notice a lot more and understand why it focused on certain things, especially as there’s a lot of foreshadowing.
There is an excellent cast in this movie, and everyone makes strong impressions in their parts. Bradley Cooper plays the lead character of Stanton Carlisle and he’s great. He does a very good job at embodying all the shady qualities necessary for his carnie character. This is definitely one of Cooper’s best performances, and his final scene could actually make it his best. There is a strong supporting cast, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe (wonderfully scene chewing as always), Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany, all of them are great in their parts, not a weak link even if some characters get more chances to shine than others. If there’s a standout among them however, it would be Cate Blanchett as a psychiatrist in a femme fatale sort of role. She does a great job, has an incredible screen presence, and almost steals the entire movie. Her scenes with Cooper are some of the highlights from the movie. I actually wished that we got more scenes with her.
Guillermo Del Toro directs and as usual he does a great job, with a lot of visual imagination on display. Even if you’re not into the story, you’ll surely like the visuals. There is some striking cinematography from Dan Lausten, with great use of colour, lighting and shadows, with some incredibly memorable imagery. The production design is magnificent, and the costume design is on point. The sound design works excellently, and the score from Nathan Johnson is one of the best from the past year. All of these come together to create a fantastic gothic atmosphere and look.
Nightmare Alley will probably end up like Guillermo del Toro’s own Crimson Peak, a very different movie from his filmography which has mixed reactions upon release, but will receive a lot more appreciation over time. As it is, I thought that Nightmare Alley is possibly one of his best movies. The cast of performances are excellent, the story is slower paced but engaging and wonderfully twisted, and its all crafted and directed well. If you can, I highly recommend you seek out Nightmare Alley, it is definitely one of my favourite films from 2021.