Review: Nightmare Alley

Year: 2021

Runtime: 150 minutes

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan

Actors: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Mark Povinelli, Jim Beaver

By Joan Amenn

Rejoice, lovers of gothic drama and noir femme fatales! Guillermo del Toro is back and has he got a holiday surprise for us! You may think you know “Nightmare Alley” (1947) but this is not Tyrone Power’s nightmare. The Master of modern horror has gifted us a wonderfully character driven tale of greed, murder and revenge that is delightfully twisted and sure to make you gasp at scenes you didn’t see coming.

Bradley Cooper has never been better as the conman Stanton Carlisle who falls in with a seedy traveling carnival on the backroads of America in the 1940’s. His character arc is the slow burn of the story as we see each choice he makes either leads him to a kind of redemption or a further spiraling downward. The carnival is so authentically depicted by del Toro that you’ll swear you can smell the sawdust and burning sugar of the kettle corn. If ever he was so inclined, del Toro would be the perfect choice to helm a true adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked this Way Comes.” Are you listening, Disney?

The various denizens of the carnival make for great cameo appearances by the ever-present Ron Perlman and David Strathairn as Pete, one half of a mentalist act with the always terrific Toni Collette as Zeena. Pete and Zeena are the heart of the first half of the film and the duo are perfect in their touching devotion to each other as the struggle for survival on the road slowly grinds them down. Carlisle meets cute with Molly (Rooney Mara) who seems like just the kind of woman who could gently guide him to his better nature. However, there isn’t much chemistry between the two and Mara isn’t given much to do besides react to Cooper’s latest scheme or pose on stage while electric current seemingly flows through her.

The second half of the film is totally eclipsed by the riveting Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter. Together, she and Cooper sizzle in the classic noir tradition of the three G’s; glamour, grift and guns. Dr. Lilith likes to keep a sweet little ivory handled snub nosed revolver tucked into her evening bag, but as Carlisle notes, she likes “pretty things.” He soon finds out that she considers him “pretty” too and they ensnare each other in a scheme for money and retaliation. Speaking of pretty, del Toro has always been celebrated for his exceptional art direction and Dr. Ritter’s office/library will knock your socks off. A dazzling confection of art deco style, it is sure to set off interior designers scurrying to recreate it for their clients in the coming year. Blanchett is a combination of Barbara Stanwyck steel and Lauren Bacall style as Lilith, a woman of mystery and intelligence as she consults to a clientele of the city’s elite. She deserves an award nomination but sadly may be overlooked this year in a sea of other great performances.

“Nightmare Alley” is a gritty, dark jewel of a film for anyone who loves the noir genre. Del Toro has stretched himself in reaching for a different tone and pacing then he is known for, apart from the criminally underappreciated “Crimson Peak” (2015). Like “Peak”, he builds up the suspense and throws in a few plot twists that culminate in a real jolt of an ending. Cooper completely nails the final scene, which some may see coming but I did not. After the obligatory Christmas schmaltz shared with family, treat yourself to a little “Nightmare.” You might find yourself looking at your local summer carnival a little differently next year.

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