Guillermo Del Toro uplifts a 1940s potboiler with outstanding visuals and a top-notch cast, but a sullen, overly worthy pace is ever-present to potentially derail it. Nightmare Alley is really good, but it is frustratingly close to great.
Mysterious wanderer Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds employment at a travelling carnival, where he woos the performer Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) and ingratiates himself with married couple Peter (David Strathairn) and Zeena (Toni Collette) Krumbein. Two years later, Stan has learned Peter’s mentalist act and is tempted to use it on a rich but gullible judge.
Much as Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) made a glorious dive into the aesthetics of gothic romance, so too does Nightmare Alley – only this case the source material is William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel and the wallowed-in aesthetic is film noir. This is a bleak story of bad people making poor decisions, weak-willed men driven to drink, and seductive femme fatales just waiting to commit a betrayal. Del Toro pastes the genre conventions on the screen with a thick impasto, with no small thanks to cinematographer Dan Laustsen, composter Nathan Johnson, and costume designer Luis Sequeira. This is one of 2021’s best-looking American features, and palpably exists within its own well-crafted, painterly world.
The world works so well because the cast heighten their performances to match it. There is a wonderful theatrical tone to their acting, perhaps not quite so outré as it would have been when Tyrone Power headlined Nightmare Alley‘s first screen adaptation (1947), but certainly distinctly removed from any kind of naturalism. It feels like luxurious pulp in the best possible sense. Bradley Cooper shines as Stan Carlisle, as does Rooney Mara as his to-be-wife Molly. A hugely impressive ensemble brings a range of characters to life, whether for most of the film or for a single scene. Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, and Ron Perlman are all predictably great, but it is in some of the smaller characters where the most impressive turns can be found. Mary Steenburgen’s grieving mother stands out, as does David Strathairn’s regretful alcoholic, and particularly Richard Jenkins as a worryingly intense client who wants a psychic reading than may be unable to provide.
Strangely out of synch with the others is Cate Blanchett as the psychiatrist Dr Lilith Ritter. She is written as an archetype but is performed as a cliché. While the screenplay does not give Blanchett a great deal with which to create depth or individuality, she seems to fail in generating anything on her own either. It seems an uncharacteristically poor performance from one of cinema’s best working actors. Whether it is the script, the directing, or the acting to blame, it is difficult to pin down. It may simply be a combination of all three.
The film’s only other flaw is a significant one: it is simply too long. Scenes of dialogue run on. The criminal scheme that dominates the film’s second half swaps economy of story-telling for something just a little too complex for its own good. Shaved down to a tight 100 minutes and Nightmare Alley would be a contender for best film of its year. Stretched out to 150 and it simply robs itself of the necessary tension. It is beautifully crafted and well-performed, but it requires a little patience.