Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley ★★★½

It's time to talk about the most hyped-up movie to come out this weekend! Not to mention the one that everyone is most excited to see Willem Dafoe in!

Nightmare Alley is the latest film from Guillermo del Toro, as well as the second film adaptation of the William Lindsay Gresham novel of the same name. The film focuses on Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a carny who learns the art of mentalism and takes his talents beyond the carnival scene with his lover Molly (Rooney Mara). But when his act brings him across corrupt psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), he finds himself evenly matched and part of his most ambitious, riskiest con yet.

I made it a point to know as little about Nightmare Alley as possible, because I was going to see it anyway with del Toro at the helm. You know you’re getting something really weird and really different with his movies, and Nightmare Alley is no exception … although it’s definitely more grounded than something like Pan’s Labrinth or even The Shape of Water. There’s nothing overtly off or supernatural going on for a while, but you’re still placed in a setting and style that constantly has you wondering if something like that might be present. One of Nightmare Alley’s biggest strengths is that it constantly leaves you guessing as to what’s going to happen and where certain character’s heads are at, yet what it does show you is so interesting that you’re that much more enticed to keep guessing.

But if you’re expecting a majority of the film to take place at that carnival, you should know ahead of time that it’s only the first act. It’s mainly a launching pad for Cooper’s and Mara’s characters, only really coming back into play thematically in a few instances. The film’s three acts are actually very different, almost to a point of feeling disjointed. This is lessened somewhat when you see how everything ends, but that doesn’t prevent the middle portion from dragging. Not that much of interest really happens here, and in the grand scheme of things this section feels like an overlong bridge between the film’s initial setup and storyline it’s actually about, the latter of which starts way later than it perhaps should have. The way I see this film working best is by combining and condensing the first two acts to be the first half, and then stretching out the third act to be the second half. As is, the structure makes you feel the long running time. All the pieces are laid out; they’re just put together in a slightly unideal fashion.

But those pieces are still more than strong enough to hold your interest. Every actor, no matter how big or small the role, draws you in, with Cooper of course being at the center. It’s made very clear that Carlisle has a rough past, but you really have to read into the little glimpses and certain choice words of his. But it’s not like The Power of the Dog where it feels like all you’re getting is that vague mystery. The performance and writing are fascinating enough to hook you in and entice you to read more deeply into the character’s every word and action. You see how he’s trying to exude power over others but is veering dangerously closer to getting in over his head, where he spreads harm to others as well as inflicting it onto himself. People who treat other people as pawns are often themselves pawns of their own demons and fears. The final few minutes of Nightmare Alley make for one of the most poetic, devastatingly cruel culminations of a character arc of the past few years, and they really cement what a dark descent Carlisle has trapped himself in.

I also just love the examination of mentalism in general. I love exploring the ins and outs of how it works and feeling the risk involved no matter how brilliant a mind is practicing it, and del Toro constructs multiple scenes and setups that take full advantage of this.

Willem Dafoe and Toni Collette are outstanding in their roles, though they mostly disappear once we leave the carnival, which is another reason I was disappointed by us leaving there so soon. Thankfully that’s not an issue with Blanchett, who steals every second of screen time she has (and when you’re acting opposite Bradley Cooper, that’s saying a lot). My next favorite performance is Richard Jenkins as Ezra Grindle, Carlisle’s ultimate target for his endgame scam. He’s yet another character that constantly has you wondering what you’re supposed to feel for him, slowly revealing himself more and more until a deeply disturbing reveal that, again, gives you just enough information to come to your own twisted conclusions. Nightmare Alley is interesting in that, when you look at the story as a whole, it seems pretty standard. But the way it’s executed always keeps you on your toes, paranoid for when and how everything is going to collapse in on itself and how these people will react to that.

The entire film is rich with dark yet standout colors. The carnival in particular establishes a fun but also kind of creepy vibe. A lot of the shots are low, making the sets seem larger than life and a bit intimidating. The film’s finale is shot and lit like something straight out of a gothic nightmare, with the gruesome and/or creepy imagery to match. Everything has an old-fashioned aesthetic but is presented in a relevantly modern way. I was surprised that the score was not done by del Toro’s frequent collaborator, Alexander Desplat, because actual composer Nathan Johnson (the cousin of and usual composer for Rian Johnson) does great work in his place.

Nightmare Alley is an uneven movie, stretched out too much in some areas and condensed too much in others. But that doesn’t stop it from being another del Toro film that’s uniquely his own and unlike anything else that’s out right now. It builds a slow, unsettling tension that, while faltering, gives you a lot to ponder over and leads to a violent, visually stunning payoff that has del Toro’s style slathered all over it. The film is definitely worth seeing, and hopefully a sneaky hit amid the slew of bigger blockbusters coming out around it.

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