Movie Review: ‘Nightmare Alley’

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn

Plot: Stan Carlisle, a drifter in the US in the late 1930s, finds work in a carnival and learns the craft of clairvoyance. Years later, his act perfected, Stan uses his cold reading abilities to swindle the wealthy, putting himself in the sights of powerful people.

Review: It’s a bit odd going into a del Toro film blind, without having seen the marketing, and finding out there’s no fantasy elements. It’s been such a staple of his work that we’d made the assumption that Nightmare Alley would feature…well…some kind of nightmare creature lurking amid some metaphorical shadow. Rather this is his most grounded experience, involving manipulation and betrayal among people whose strengths lay in being able to read people and give them what they want.

It almost feels like two seperate stories, an origin and a sequel. Stan (Cooper) is a vagabond who finds his way in a carnival run by Clem (Dafoe). He quickly learns that little is what it seems in this setting, with the disturbing ‘geek’ performance being an alcoholic kept in captivity using an opium addiction. Having a talent for showmanship and finding ways to improve the performances, Stan becomes close to the clairvoyant Zeena (Collette) and begins training with her and her husband Pete (Strathairn). This portion of the film is packed with larger-than-life characters played by the likes of Ron Pearlman as a strongman. Having adapted to life as a carnie and shyster, we have a jump forward in time when Stan and Molly (Mara) leave the carnival together to find where the grass is greener.

Year later, and performing his mind-reading routine for the the wealthy and elite, Stan is approached by and challenged by Lilith Ritter (Blanchett), a psychologist. Lilith and Stan conspire to use her information on her clients and his cold reading skills to extort money from influential figures. The conflict comes into play when Stan pushes his luck with the dangerous Ezra Grimble (Jenkins), Molly begins to distrust Stan’s intentions while Lilith appears to be playing a game of her own.

What the film amounts to is an Aesop style tale of a man brought down by his own hubris, succumbing to greed and ego rather than heading the warnings that flash in front of his face. It’s a grim story with few likeable characters. We never quite sympathise with Stan Carlisle, being introduced to him covering up an unknown crime and being all to willing to take advantage of people to serve his own need. You do need a film-maker as talented as del Toro at the helm to keep us engaged during such a dire story and he creates a rich world with a colour scheme reflective of the alcohol Stan refuses to imbibe.

With plenty of eye-catching production design and phenomenal performances from the ensemble cast there are more than a few scenes that will have you enthralled. What holds this back from sitting among del Toro’s best work is the lack of emotional engagement with the material. We want to see how things turn out for Carlisle, but we don’t care to see him succeed or get what’s coming to him and the ending feels rushed. The time-jump in the middle of the film means that many of the intriguing characters get dropped from the story without resolution. It’s a good time, but like the carnival, is mostly about the sales pitch rather than the take-away experience.

Rating: SEVEN out of TEN