Moviegoer: Nightmare Alley

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Guillermo del Toro crafts a film noir with teeth in stylish remake

By Diana Beechener

When Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper: Licorice Pizza) wanders into a traveling carnival, he’s just looking for a hot meal. Disgusted by the geek show (that’s a man biting the heads off live chickens, not The Big Bang Theory, kids), he views the carnies as freaks. But stuck in the mire of the Great Depression, Stanton can’t be picky about how he makes his money.

         Soon, he’s helping with the hustles and flirting with one of the acts. But Stanton isn’t content to be a two-bit grifter in a low-rent carnival. He feels he’s meant for better things. When he sees an opportunity to steal what he sees as a money-making act, Stanton leaps at his chance.

         Can Stanton make his way in this world with cruelty and brutality? Or is he just another mark playing a sucker’s game?

         A remake of a 1947 Tyrone Power film noir, Nightmare Alley is faithful to the film that paved the way. Though the film’s plot is the same, the movie itself has gotten a facelift. It’s a safe bet that anything writer/director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) touches will be a visual feast. The sense of beautiful macabre that fills all the director’s work is always a treat to see. Nightmare Alley certainly lives up to that standard—the film is stuffed with noir lighting and enough Deco design elements to make any architecture nerd swoon. But though the movie is stunning, like the characters it features, it’s ultimately a bit hollow.

The greatest asset that del Toro has as a filmmaker is his sense of humanity. He sees touches of tenderness and beauty in monsters and men, often crafting narratives that revolve around people or creatures who are shunned from “proper” society. It’s often a theme in his films that in spite of the brutality of the world, there’s beauty and magic if you know where to look. While this film features some outsiders, the sense of humanity is gone.

Nightmare Alley is ultimately about the empty cruelty of naked ambition, so the warmth found in most of del Toro’s work is absent. The result is a chilly tale that is lovely to look at but lacks the magic of many of the director’s other works.

The cast does what they can to keep things entertaining. Cooper shines as a mercurial man with a chip on his shoulder and a need to prove himself. Stanton is consumed by fears of inadequacy and greed, even when he’s trying to be a good man. Rooney Mara also offers a lovely performance as Molly, Stanton’s sweet-natured girlfriend. It’s an old-fashioned role, but Mara does well shading Molly’s growing horror as she realizes what kind of man she’s with.

The strongest part of the film, however, is the carnival. The curious world of oddities and outsiders del Toro assembles is truly a delight to explore. The film is at its best when it lets the audience follow slimy carnie Willem Dafoe as he nickels and dimes the acts, or when strong man Ron Perlman tries to protect his surrogate daughter from the outside world. It’s these moments, when we see the world the carnival workers have built, that Nightmare Alley truly finds its footing. Who wouldn’t want to explore a funhouse that features the best of del Toro’s Lovecraftian sensibilities?

But that also means that Nightmare Alley begins to drag the moment Stanton and Molly leave the carnival. Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones are no match for a wall of embalmed oddities and a bearded lady. In spite of their beauty, the second half of the film (set in New York) pales in comparison to the glitz of the carnival life.

Certainly it’s del Toro’s most pessimistic work to date, but Nightmare Alley is still a pretty good film noir with some gorgeous set pieces. But it is a film that has no time for humanity or wild enchantments. In fact, Nightmare Alley seems to be the director lifting up the curtain and showing you just what’s behind all the magic in his previous films. But sometimes it hurts to look behind the curtain and see how the tricks are done—you may be wiser for it, but is it worth losing the wonder?

Good Noir * R * 150 mins.

Nightmare Alley is showing exclusively in theaters