Nightmare Alley review – a blend of horror and noir that’s never boring

Nightmare Alley review

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins. Directed by Guillermo del Toro.

It’s been a hot minute since Guillermo del Toro stood on the stage at the Academy Awards clutching his Oscar, proclaiming to believe in cinema, finally crowned one of the best directors. His follow up to monster romance The Shape of Water is no less a del Toro film, even if the supernatural elements have been toned down.

Nightmare Alley follows talented chancer Stan Carlisle, who weasels his way into a travelling carnival, ascending up before breaking out on his own with innocent performer Molly. What follows is a web of lies, deceit and faux supernatural abilities that can only spell disaster.

There is no denying the talent with which del Toro directs. His films, even his compromised ones, have a visual eye that few directors have. From the beginning del Toro shows that despite winning big at the awards he’s still interested in all the quirks that made his films so beloved to begin with. Watches, fathers, faith, the macabre are all on show here, beautifully played with a straight faced sincerity that belies the more grotesque. 

It’s a natural fit for del Toro to explore carnivals, his films have always been about outsiders. His films revel in the monstrous being beautiful and the “beautiful” being monstrous. There’s a nobility to the world of the carnival that calls to mind the BPRD world of Hellboy. This is helped by a supporting role from del Toro’s super bff Ron Perlman. The film is pretty much broken into two halves, with a two year time gap showing the halves. 

Of this early carnival section there’s a decided lack of the austere horrific trappings you would expect, despite Willem Dafoe toeing the line between carny and camp. The whole section is held aloft by Toni Collette and David Strathairn as two old hats in the world of tarots, minds and the future. Collette brings a sensuality to her role that is key to it’s allure, while Strathairn at times resembles Federico Luppi in del Toro’s debut Cronos. His sauced up former mind reader is a role of great pathos and sorrow.

Once the film jumps, Bradley Cooper in his role as Carlisle comes into his own. While the role of Molly is one of childlike innocence, Rooney Mara makes a valiant attempt to inject life into it, but she sadly remains the least interesting of the three central women. Cooper brings that same chancer with a dark side that he brought to Limitless and American Hustle but this time the edges aren’t smoothed. Many scenes are him turning around in dimly lit halls showing his corruption and descent into darkness and both del Toro and Cooper relish this noir trope.

It’s only when Cate Blanchett shows up as lavish psychiatrist Dr Lilith Ritter that things start getting operatic. Until then things have been moody, and intriguing, with a slow, deliberate pace. Blanchett however, with her ever sharp cheeks, smoulders on screen like a pro. Her performance pitched somewhere between Mrs Danvers and Nurse Ratched. She’s joined in this more operatic section by a big con idea centred around Richard Jenkins’ mogul Ezra Grindle. Jenkins brings an air of barely repressed anger to the whole thing and both he and Blanchett are the stand outs.

The final section of the film calls to mind gothic horror, and reminds us that Crimson Peak was criminally underrated. Writing here with Kim Morgan, del Toro doesn’t opt for a romanticism that was present in much of his previous work. This is a much more cynical film in keeping with the noir genre.

All this is helped by Nathan Johnson’s lush score, it coupled with Dan Lausten’s cinematography make for a film that might be long and paced in a deliberately slow way but is never boring. The climax’s more horrific moments. 

It being a del Toro movie it might not be for everyone, those looking for moody noir might not enjoy the film’s flirting with horror. Those who love del Toro’s fantastic might not like it’s more “real” world. For fans of visionary directors, it’s time to bask in del Toro’s dark light once more.

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Paul Klein

Paul is Film & Media Editor @ No Majesty. Paul is a Film Studies Graduate from London, and former writer at The Metropolist.