Playing catch-up with the Best Picture nominees for the 94th Academy Awards.
Carnivals are such hellish playgrounds, and Guillermo del Toro feels right at home throughout much of Nightmare Alley despite the notable absence of supernatural forces. When the movie grabs you by the throat and entices you with grim sequences and unsavory corners of the world, it’s as good as anything in del Toro’s dense filmography.
Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel — which was adapted into a movie the following year by Edmund Goulding — Nightmare Alley opens with one hell of an introduction to our main character, Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). We watch him bury a corpse under the floorboards of a home before setting the entire estate ablaze. Stan then hops on a bus and happens upon a low-rent carnival circa the late 1930s. The carnival is run by Clem (Willem Dafoe), and some late-night shiftwork turns into a permanent job. Stan’s first assignment? Helping Clem find and wrangle the show’s “Geek” — a feral-looking alcoholic whose act involves biting the heads off of chickens in exchange for booze and paltry shelter — who has escaped his cage.
Stan becomes chummy with the carnival’s barrage of outcasts: there’s a fortune-teller named Zeena (Toni Collette), her husband Pete (David Strathairn), who becomes Stan’s mentor of sorts, a hulking man named Bruno (Ron Perlman), and a dwarf known as “Major” (Mark Povinelli). Stan goes on to aid Pete in rigging Zeena’s act, and graduates into learning the art of mentalism. Pete is careful about bestowing this knowledge, however; pretending to have this kind of access, particularly to the dead, can have grave consequences for all involved.
Stan finds his muse in the young Molly (Rooney Mara), whom he convinces to leave the carnival and take the mentalist routine to nightclubs in Buffalo sometime later. He crosses paths with Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a therapist who might be even more cunning and ruthless than himself. The two collaborate on a show of their own, with Lilith revealing the secrets of her rich clients to Stan in a way that allows him to make his mentalist routine more individual-centric and increasingly more lucrative.
Cinematographer Dan Laustsen (who collaborated with del Toro on The Shape of Water) colors this late 30s/early 40s period with a film noir palette. Muted colors and murky exteriors accentuate an environment where deception runs amok and man is the real monster. del Toro has worked wonders in these settings in the past, and makes another involving story with a setting that is seldom-seen in modern cinema.
It can get bloated, however. At 150 minutes, Nightmare Alley has a few valleys in its excitement, largely in the flabby second act where the time it takes for Stan and Lilith’s plan to materialize works against it. It could also be the fact that the first hour is so rich with understated excitement and intriguing characters that a comedown was inevitable. Not helping is the fact that at the hour mark, the shift in time and setting results in us losing Dafoe and Collette on-screen. Blanchett — whom Mara’s Molly accurately describes as a “frozen-faced bitch” at one point — is predictably strong, a worthy femme fatale, so to speak, but she’s a rigid supporting performer replacing a handful of looser, more colorful ones.
Saving Nightmare Alley from the purgatorial space of being an average movie with a great first half is a strong final 40 minutes, where Stan and Lilith lock-in on a millionaire still grieving the loss of his wife and the unhealed wounds that marred their marriage. The man is played by Richard Jenkins in another terrific showing for the veteran actor. He shares unimaginably personal details despite the justified suspicion of his assistants. The outcome for the characters, coupled with the film’s ending, plays like a Twilight Zone episode in the best possible way.
Nightmare Alley was never going to be a hit with audiences, and coming out alongside Spider-Man: No Way Home was an enormous miscalculation by Searchlight. For those who still question the Oscars’ relevance in the modern day, they continue to draw attention to films we missed over the last calendar year. Nightmare Alley is worth doubling back.
NOTE: Nightmare Alley is now streaming on HBO Max.
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Mary Steenburgen, and Mark Povinelli. Directed by: Guillermo del Toro.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!