Film Review: NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)
NOTE: This review will contain some spoilers for the film. I’ll try to be light on specific details.
What does a storyteller do after they’ve made their masterpiece?
If I had to make a list of my primary creative influences, one of the first names on that list would have to be Guillermo Del Toro. The Mexican director/writer is among the greatest (if not the greatest) genre filmmakers working today. His powerful works of horror and dark fantasy are bursting with creativity, thrills, emotion and explorations of the best and worst that humanity has to offer. In Del Toro’s films, monsters and ghosts are rarely as frightening as the evil that lurks in the hearts of abusers and tyrants. And yet his stories are hardly ever cynical at their core: if anything, they marvel in the bravery and compassion that ordinary people are capable of when tested.
Del Toro has been a beloved filmmaker for about two decades now, but his fame reached new levels in late 2017/early 2018, when his fantasy romance film The Shape of Water hit theaters. That film racked up numerous accolades and awards, culminating in its unlikely triumph at the Oscars. It won Best Picture — the first fantasy film to do so since the last Lord of the Rings movie — and Del Toro won Best Director. It’s been frequently hailed as the director’s magnum opus, and even Del Toro himself is inclined to agree.
When you consider all that, it’s not surprising that Del Toro has kept to the sidelines for the past few years. After you’ve had the biggest critical success of your career, you probably need to step back and think about how you’re going to follow it up. Do you stick to territory that’s comfortable for you and your audience? Or do you push against your own boundaries and test the limits of your own talent?
In Del Toro’s case, he turned to a passion project that he’s had on the backburner for almost 30 years. And while the foundation of Nightmare Alley is not wholly unfamiliar to him, the final result is something unlike anything he’s made before.
The Plot: In 1939, a drifter named Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) rolls up to a Midwestern carnival and finds work as a laborer. But Stan is determined to do better for himself than that. He charms his way into the good graces of Madame Zeena (Toni Collette), the carnival’s phony psychic who does a mind-reading act with her husband. Once he’s learned/stolen all the knowledge he can from Zeena, Stan drops her in favor of the naive and kind-hearted Molly (Rooney Mara), who has her own act as an “electric girl.” Two years after hitting the road together, they’re performing the mind-reading act for elite New York crowds on a daily basis. But no amount of wealth and glory is enough for Stan, who soon hits on a new moneymaking scheme: scamming people who believe he can speak to the dead. With the help of a femme fatale psychologist named Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), Stan goes to work on Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a filthy rich businessman seeking absolution for the death of his lover. If Stan can pull off a fake seance for Grindle, he’ll be set for life. But he might have made a fatal mistake in underestimating the manipulative Dr. Ritter…
Nightmare Alley is a departure for Del Toro in two notable ways. For starters, this is the first time since 2004’s Hellboy that one of his films is an adaptation of a preexisting story. The original Nightmare Alley is a 1946 noir novel by William Lindsay Gresham. It was first adapted for film in 1947, with Tyrone Power playing Stanton Carlisle. The restrictions of the Hays Code meant that this first film had to excise a lot of the bleak and scandalous material from Gresham’s novel: most notably, the ending is altered to not be such a downer.
The second and more obvious deviation from Del Toro’s previous work is that the story has no fantasy or supernatural elements to it whatsoever. There are no real ghosts, and Stan has no real psychic powers (even if he doesn’t want to admit it). Compare this to the rest of Del Toro’s filmography, which is filled with everything from vampires to demons to kaiju to whatever the hell the Pale Man was.
But when you dig past the surface, Nightmare Alley isn’t nearly as atypical for Del Toro as it might appear. The story still deals with a lot of the themes that he’s explored throughout his films, notably the theme of flawed, corrupt humans being capable of great cruelty. “The worst monster is a human,” he said in a recent interview with Vanity Fair. “What is it that makes us human, or what is it that separates a lie from the truth?” It’s no wonder that he was drawn to this story. And the material that he has to work with gives him one of his best avenues yet for analyzing these questions about humanity and truth.
The screenplay, written by Del Toro and his now-wife Kim Morgan, is a masterclass in writing dialogue and developing complex characters. It feels a bit like seeing a magic trick performed in front of you and watching closely to try and grasp how it works. This is true in both a figurative and a literal sense. The first half of the film revolves around Stan training under the phony psychics, learning how to read people and pick up details that you can use against them. But he doesn’t get the chance to truly test his abilities until the second half of the film, when he meets Dr. Ritter and recruits her for his con. Ritter agrees to supply Stan with info about his potential marks, with the condition that he undergo therapy sessions with her. He accepts, foolishly thinking that he can hold his own against a trained psychologist. Some of the best scenes in the film are these therapy sessions, with Stan and Dr. Ritter enacting their intricate mind games against each other. You find yourself hanging on every word, wanting to follow the thread of the conversation. You want to understand just how Dr. Ritter gradually breaks Stan down, and how Stan tries in vain to guard himself against her.
These two get the most focus, but the cast as a whole is astoundingly well-written. I think this is some of the best character work that Del Toro has ever done. No matter how likable or reprehensible these characters are, none of them are completely good or evil. They all have hopes and dreams, damage and flaws, regrets and closet skeletons. As a result, they feel incredibly human. Stan, for example, is not what we’d consider a good guy. He’s a sleazy, corrupt con artist, and by the end of the film, he’s also a murderer. But there are elements to his character that make him sympathetic nonetheless. His love for Molly is genuine, and so his desire to better himself and treat his friends well. He’s also one of the few people in the carnival who shows kindness towards its “geek,” a deranged man who is kept prisoner in a cage and earns his keep by biting the heads off chickens for a disgusted crowd. So while there is catharsis in seeing Stan get what he deserves in the final stretch of the film, there is tragedy in it as well, because you do feel for him. That’s how it is with all the characters: they have a rich complexity that makes you want to follow their stories. Even the most contemptible characters like Dr. Ritter and Ezra Grindle have moments which elicit the audience’s pity. A movie like this must be a character actor’s dream, to be honest. It gives you so much to sink your teeth into.
When Tyrone Power played Stan in the 1947 film, he was trying to break away from his image as a dashing Hollywood swashbuckler. Bradley Cooper does not have that problem: he is no stranger to playing flawed and complicated people. Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, A Star Is Born, etc. Hell, even Rocket Raccoon has his fair share of baggage. What I’m saying is, Stanton Carlisle feels like the role Cooper was born to play. He throws himself into the task of embodying all the facets of this character. Stan is the kind of guy who’s almost always putting on a performance for others: his moments of emotional honesty are rare and usually have to be wrung out of him. Cooper does an excellent job of showing when Stan’s kindness is real and when it’s a facade. He captures the charisma that allows Stan to rise to fame and the hubris that ruins him. When the facade crumbles as all his plans go awry, his ruthlessness is terrifying to witness. And by the end of the film, despite all that Stan has done, it’s still gut-wrenching to see where he ultimately ends up. The final shot in particular is haunting, and it stands out as some of the best acting that Cooper has ever done.
And that’s only one stellar performance out of many. Cate Blanchett is clearly having fun being smug, seductive and eventually downright evil as Dr. Ritter. Willem Dafoe has a supporting role as the carnival owner in the first half of the film, and he delivers a great chilling monologue about the process of finding and creating a “geek.” Richard Jenkins previously worked with Del Toro on The Shape of Water, and those who remember his kindhearted character from that film will be shocked by his turn as the repulsive Ezra Grindle. Rooney Mara has somewhat less to do as Molly, the most morally pure character out of the bunch, but she still turns in a sweet and sympathetic performance. As an aside, it’s also nice to see frequent Del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman here in a small role, especially since he was absent from Del Toro’s previous two films.
Another reason Nightmare Alley deserves to be seen? It’s a feast for the eyes. The two halves of this film both have a distinct yet complementary visual style. The carnival in the first half looks worn-down and lived-in. It’s undeniably creepy, but its dark Americana vibes also feel close and familiar, especially if you’ve been to small carnivals and state fairs. This is also where Del Toro gets to include some grotesque imagery that hearkens back to his earlier films, like the prominent prop of a pickled three-eyed fetus that Willem Dafoe’s character owns. When the story moves into the city, you get thrust into the middle of grand Art Deco opulence that demonstrates the wealth and hubris of the upper class. A location of particular note is Dr. Ritter’s office, which feels like an extension of the character herself: it’s elegant and classy and full of secrets, but it also gets more cold and uninviting the more time you spend there. It works so well, especially as the backdrop for some of the best scenes in the film.
The main criticism of the film that I’ve seen, at least coming from social media, concerns its length. It’s about two and a half hours, and because it’s such a slow-paced film with a lot of dialogue, you do feel that length. But I think the film earns its long runtime. You could in theory cut this down to two hours, but you would lose key parts of the story in the process. And going any shorter than that would severely compromise the final product. The movie is supposed to be long and slow. It’s a moody, hypnotic character study that you immerse yourself in. You have to know what kind of movie you’re in for in order to enjoy it, but if you’re willing to do what the movie asks of you — pay attention and let yourself get wrapped up in this world — then you’ll find a lot to love here. I certainly did.
Though I prefer Guillermo Del Toro’s traditional horror fare, Nightmare Alley showcases some of his best work. This is a longtime passion project for him, and it’s clear that he understands the essence of noir: broken people trying to find their way in a broken world. The story of Stanton Carlisle unfolds as a slow, chilling descent into tragedy and madness that you want to follow to its bitter end. The top-notch script and fantastic performances, especially by Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, keep you enraptured throughout the runtime. The visuals and cinematography are marvelous, making this one of the best-looking films of the year. Because its slow pace, oppressive gloominess and adult content might make it difficult for some viewers to connect to, this is a film that seems destined to find a dedicated audience over time. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t get a Criterion Collection release sometime in the next few years. And I hope it does get found by an audience that appreciates it, because it deserves to be seen.
Final Rating: 4.5 Stars
As good as Nightmare Alley is, it also had the misfortune of releasing on the same day as Spider-Man: No Way Home. So you can guess how well it’s done at the box office. BUT! Del Toro is still hard at work on future projects, which is good news for all of us. He recently signed a deal with Netflix, which will distribute his next film — a stop-motion adaptation of Pinocchio — as well as an anthology horror series that he’s creating, writing and producing. He’s even hinted that the Netflix deal might allow him to revive one of his most famous unfinished projects, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. It sounds as though he’s getting back into his usual territory, so horror fans will have plenty more to enjoy from in the coming years. But if he ever wants to make something outside his wheelhouse again, I welcome the prospect of it. Nightmare Alley proves what a success that can be.