Guillermo del Toro’s latest film immerses us into the shady world of a late 1930s traveling carnival. The neo-noir thriller Nightmare Alley begins and ends in a world where madmen locked in cages eat live chickens in front of an audience and dead fetuses soaked in wood alcohol are displayed in glass jars. It’s a richly designed, unsettling world in which the monsters are not del Toro’s normal fantastical creatures, but the men themselves.
Del Toro and Kim Morgan’s screenplay is based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. A year after the book was released, Edmund Goulding directed a popular noir film adaptation starring Tyrone Power. Now, del Toro is back with another adaptation of the story of Stan Carlisle.
The mysterious Stan (Bradley Cooper) is a man who already has a shady past when he runs into a traveling carnival run by Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe) and ends up with a job. Before long, he’s befriended Zeena (Toni Colette) and her older, alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), who do a mind-reading routine. Stan helps out with their show, learning the tricks of how they run their act. Meanwhile, he’s intrigued by pretty young Molly (Rooney Mara), who seems like a spot of innocence in the midst of trickery and deception, and eagerly woos her. When tragedy strikes, he convinces her to leave the carnival with him to seek out something more worthy of their talents.
The film jumps forward two years to find a better dressed Stan, now sporting a thin mustache, doing his mind-reading routine with Molly for wealthy city crowds at fancy nightclubs. At one performance, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) tries to expose them as fakes, but Stan is able to talk his way out of it, intriguing Lilith. The pair begin working together to scheme some of her wealthy clients, but when Stan agrees to take part in a “spook show” and pretend to contact the dead, everything threatens to fall apart.
Many of del Toro’s films have featured creatures, but the men and women of Nightmare Alley are just as monstrous. It’s a dark film, both in subject matter and lighting, and at times a bit gruesome. From the carnival “geeks” hooked on booze and opium as a way of controlling them to Stan’s own immoral behavior, it’s a movie that has a darker outlook on life than much of del Toro’s past work.
Nightmare Alley is easily one of the most gorgeously crafted films of the whole year, from Dan Lausten’s superb cinematography to the score by Nathan Johnson. Cam McLauchlin’s editing occasionally has moments that harken back to noir films and an older style of filmmaking, helping to further cement it as being from another period. The production and costume design are out of this world, perfectly creating both the seedy carnival atmosphere and the upper-class world that Stan and Molly escape to. Furthermore, the sound work is strong and the makeup in the carnival sections is impressive.
Unfortunately, everything else in the film, from the performances to the script, doesn’t live up to its craftsmanship. Cooper is reliably good throughout most of the film, but doesn’t deliver anything special until his very last scene (which is, admittedly, fantastic). His natural charm works well for the role of a man who is essentially conning his audiences, but he barely gets a chance to show off his acting skills.
Blanchett and Cooper have fantastic chemistry, making the scenes between them some of the best of the film. She seems like a femme fatale from an old movie, though also doesn’t have many opportunities to show off her talent. Mara and Cooper don’t work as well together and her bland performance doesn’t do much to help a character that is meant to be the one actually moral person in the story, but mostly comes off as boring. The central romance falling flat drags down the film as a whole.
Richard Jenkins is the standout of the cast as wealthy Ezra Grindle who hires Stan to get in touch with his dead lover. When he first appears in the film’s third act, it finally starts to heat up again. The film’s main problem is that its slow burn is simply too slow. The middle section of the film lacks energy and while it picks up in the end, it’s not enough to justify its long run-time.
Nightmare Alley looks gorgeous, but doesn’t have much to say underneath. It doesn’t live up to its 1947 predecessor or offer anything particularly insightful within this story. It’s still an entertaining watch, thanks to the atmospheric production design and decent performances, but its weak script means it likely won’t stay with you for long afterward. Nightmare Alley is unfortunately much like the carnival it depicts: a lot of smoke and glamor without much substance underneath.
Nightmare Alley arrives in theaters on December 17th, 2021.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.