Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name is a neo-noir psychological thriller starring Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett at the head of a staggering ensemble cast. Despite generally positive reviews, Nightmare Alley underperformed at the box office, immediately seeing it teeter above the abyssal divide between the opinions of audiences and critics.
The reasons why are relatively clear – Nightmare Alley is a singular type of film. It’s got its weaker points (and they are quite hard to miss), but its also a very strong offering from director Guillermo del Toro, who proves his range as a filmmaker.
Nightmare Alley is a departure from del Toro’s usual fantastical fare, instead toeing the line between hard-boiled noir and deeply tense psychological thriller. Where del Toro’s films so often feature outstanding fantastical visuals, Nightmare Alley too is able to deliver in the visual sense. From the bleak, grimy carnival scenes from the film’s first half to the sleek, big-city splendor of the film’s second half, there’s a real sense of contrast displayed as the film’s story unfolds.
Just as Nightmare Alley impresses visually, its actors also deliver sound performances. Bradley Cooper is undoubtedly the film’s star, capturing the maddening depth of Stanton Carlisle. Cooper blends sinister depravity with a sympathetic softness in a way that’s every bit as mesmerizing as Nightmare Alley‘s visuals. Rooney Mara also offers a game performance in her supporting role, with other stand-out performances coming from Willem Dafoe and Richard Jenkins.
However, Nightmare Alley isn’t without its issues. The first is its pacing, which seems to fluctuate wildly between painfully slow-burning tension and a blur of tragedy and misfortune. But for a few misplaced scenes, Nightmare Alley generally ramps up to this, which parallels its characters’ narrative arc, but within its 150-minute run time, there are numerous moments that drag considerably.
Another issue is a handful of stray lines of poorly written dialogue. One or two of these are delivered in key moments, which play off as more comedic than the sinister or foreboding lines they’re intended to be. Somehow, even this works in Nightmare Alley‘s favor in part, as they play like homages to the noir films of Old Hollywood rather than the immersion-breaking nonsense they’d come off as in lesser films.
Most of the film’s weaker components are suitably glossed over by the deft hands of its director or the enthralling performances of its core cast. It’s certainly not without its issues, and fans of more traditional blockbusters will likely find little that they enjoy, but Nightmare Alley delivers an interesting and entertaining story in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
With its large supporting ensemble cast of celebrated actors such as Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Straithairn, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, and Tim Blake Nelson, Nightmare Alley is able to lend a Hollywood legitimacy to what, in lesser hands, would have been a far less impressive film. Instead, Nightmare Alley feels like a love letter to the noir genre, while still feeling relevant to modern audiences in a way that’s often missed by films of its kind. It’s far from flawless, but even its issues add to its charm, and the film’s ambitious execution ultimately entertains thoroughly.
Summary: A noir thriller that will thrill and entertain in spades, Nightmare Alley might not be perfect, but it’s an unforgettable experience.
Highlights: The final scene pays off all of Nightmare Alley‘s considerable build-up, with Bradley Cooper demonstrating the reason why he’s one of Hollywood’s currently most underrated actors.