Nightmare Alley (2022) – Review

Nightmare Alley Neo-noir, so often, can be style over substance. Sumptuous to look at but severely lacking in authentic characters and narrative arcs. So, has “master of the spectacle” Guillermo del Toro succeeded in providing something more? Nightmare Alley – which he has stated is not a remake of the 1947 Tyrone Power movie, but instead is a reworking of William Lindsay Gresham’s source novel – is a decadent, cinematically stunning film that offers up themes of cyclical behaviour, fate and being unable to escape who you really are.

If you have watched the trailer and are anticipating some sort of supernatural horror, then this may not be the film for you. It’s a wordy, neo-noir melodrama. It’s executed perfectly, but it just may not be the style or genre that the trailer leads you to think it might be.

The film is, essentially, told in two parts. The first of which sees Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) wash up at a small town carnival, looking for odd jobs. There, he is introduced to a world of magic and mayhem; trickery and half truths. In the second part of the film, Stanton is now an established “mentalist”, performing for the wealthy elite all over the country. But, in skeptical psychiatrist Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), has he met his match?

Perhaps what is most striking about this film – besides how sumptuous it is to look at – is the cast list. It reads like a list of Academy Award nominees on any given year. And, despite how little screen time a few of these big names have, their impact is immediately felt. David Strathairn, in particular, is utterly heartbreaking as Pete, a former mentalist who suffers from “shut eye” and is struggling to contain his alcoholism. Willem Dafoe is every inch the performer, drawing you in to his character – even if you can never believe a word he says.

In the lead role, Bradley Cooper truly is at his best. Everyone is a “mark” as makes his ascension from dusty carnival floorboards to glittering marble hallways. There is a desperation that never quite leaves his eyes; his fixed grin unconvincing. Each part of Cooper’s journey feels like it’s set up like a trick. There’s the initial interest, the narrative, the misdirection and the big reveal. Just when you’re about to walk away from the attraction, they show you what you’ve been missing all along. As such, the pacing does veer from slow, slow burn to all the thrills and spills of a side show.

Cate Blanchett – oh to be lit the way Cate is in his film – is every inch the classic noir femme fatale. She does that beautiful chin tilt / eyes up look made famous by Lauren Bacall throughout, possessing a throaty husk that makes Ms. Bacall sound like a soprano.

Nightmare Alley Cate BlanchettNathan Johnson’s score is quite magical throughout. From Satie-esque minor key melodies to sonorous strings, it really adds to the often disorientating feel of the film. Even the cadence of the speech and even the vocabulary used feels authentic for the period. Luis Sequeira’s costumes are flawless. Rooney Mara looks likes Snow White, with her black hair tumbling against a red wool coat. Steely Cate Blanchett is dressed suitably in blacks and gun metal greys. Cooper’s wardrobe fluctuates with his character’s success.

Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is exquisite – really bringing del Toro’s vision to life. Every scene, every location has this artificial soft focus to it, adding to the feeling that everything is not as it seems. In the first part of the film, the carnival – a place you would expect to be full of fun and light – is swept in sepia and muted reds. It is haunting in its beauty. There is also a particularly nice shot – towards the end of the film – of Cooper’s face in the snow, his blue eyes every bit as cold as the winter night.

Thematically, del Toro makes notions of history repeating itself or being unable to outrun your destiny very clear. This is seen through Zeena’s (Toni Colette) use of Tarot cards and in Stanton’s relationship with every older male he encounters. No matter how you choose to reinvent yourself, in this cinematic world, there is no escaping your past or who you are meant to be. The spectre of World War Two also looms large on the horizon. The world is changing. People are scared. And, whilst this plays into Stanton’s hands in terms of being able to easily pick up “marks” – it also further underlines the uncertainty and unease that pervades the film.

Nightmare Alley truly is something to behold – another fantastic addition to del Toro’s already outstanding body of work.

Nightmare Alley is now screening in cinemas.

Mary Munoz
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