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Nightmare Alley (2021) – Review: Guillermo del Toro Takes a Tragic Tale and Loads it With Bells and Whistles

December 14, 2021

Quick thoughts – Grade – B – Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1947 novel (he says it isn’t a remake of the 1947 film) is beautiful to look at, and jam-packed with solid performances. However, the 150-minute running time weighs the film down and slows the pace to a crawl. Yes, del Toro purposefully made the scope massive to build towards the ending, and slow burns are always welcome, but the added fat keeps the film from getting an A.

In a recent interview with Uproxx, del Toro said “I believe that there is a beautiful place for a new resurgence of noir, because it is the most cinematic, lush, glorious genre. And other than horror, it has been my love all my life, both in the novels and in the filming genre. I love them equally.” You can tell how much he loves noir with Nightmare Alley, a movie that is loaded with femme fatales, booze, shadows, cheekbones, shady characters and a gut-punch ending that is wonderfully nasty. The problem is he decks out every frame with exorbitant production design and intense lighting which add a digital gloss to what should be low down and dirty. It’s neat that almost every lampshade, sign, and tent are slightly askew, and traditionally noirs have relied on style, but all the bells and whistles take away from the character study. 

Nightmare Alley focuses on the rise and fall of Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, an ambitious man with a mysterious past, who is first introduced by burning down his midwestern home. Stan clearly has skeletons in his closet, and that’s why he accepts work with a traveling carnival managed by Clement “Clem” Hoately (Willem Dafoe), who keeps his workforce in line with a mixture of booze and just enough pay to make them happy. While at the carnival, Stan is tutored by Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn), and he’s taught how to use a coded language system in order to fool people into thinking he has mental powers. While he’s working for the carnival, he meets Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), and the two break away from the carnival and start a two person “spook show” in Chicago where they take the money of the local elite. Stan’s show puts him in the crosshairs of Dr. Lilith Rutter (Cate Blanchett), a prominent psychologist who wants to use Stan to make boatloads of money. It would be a shame to spoil the rest of the film, so just know that there are twists, turns, double-crosses, and Richard Jenkins being creepy (and loving every second of it).

Since it’s a Guillermo del Toro film, the cinematography, production design and costumes are all top notch. Tamara Deverell’s (The Strain) production design is inspired, as the carnival she helped create is believably gritty, and the posh offices are loaded with angles and window blinds that allow shadows to hit the actor’s faces perfectly. Overall, it’s a top-notch production that feels a bit excessive, but, if you’ve watched a del Toro film before, this isn’t surprising as he loves his production design and intricate costumes. In the end, it’s a film worth watching for Cooper’s inspired performance, the gut-punch ending, and the love that del Toro fills it with (you can tell he loved making this noir). 

Final ThoughtsNightmare Alley is too glossy, but it’s worth a watch.

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