Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Nightmare Alley is based on a 1946 noir novel by William Lindsay Gresham, having already received a movie adaptation back in 1947. It’s the directors star-studded follow up to his best picture winner The Shape of Water, only this time around the only monsters to be found are those of the more human variety.
Bradley Cooper stars as Stanton Carlisle, who we know very little about right from the outset. When we first meet him, he’s torching his family home, leaving his past behind him as he takes what little belongings he has and boards a bus. Falling asleep, he wakes up when the bus reaches its final destination and is drawn to the bright lights of a nearby carnival. Heading down to check it out, Stanton is enthralled by all that he sees, including Bruno the Strongman (Ron Perlman), Molly the electric girl (Rooney Mara) and ringmaster Clem (Willem Dafoe), who is gleefully demonstrating one of his more gruesome and disturbing acts.
We’ve still not heard more than a couple of words from Stanton, or have any idea of his origin or future plans before Clem has offered him work in the carnival. After a tough first nights work, he meets up with Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), spending some time helping them with their clairvoyant act and becoming increasingly interested in the art of mentalism. The pair have spent many years perfecting a complex code that Pete has documented in a worn old notebook – certain words or phrases that an assistant uses to convey information to the mentalist without the audience knowing. After demonstrating their skills to a shocked and baffled Stanton, he becomes even more determined to master the art, clearly spotting a chance to profit from it.
Nightmare Alley is a film of two distinct halves and I found the first half fascinating, entertaining and beautifully detailed. As the story meanders along, we learn some of the secrets and techniques behind the carnival acts at the same time as Stanton does, something which really appealed to me. Stanton becomes an integral part of the carnival family, earning further trust by using his newfound skills to avoid being shut down by the local police and forming a relationship with Molly, the electric girl.
The second half involves a shift to New York and a two-year leap forward in time. Stanton is now touring as “Master Stanton” with girlfriend Molly as his assistant. Their mentalism act is now highly polished, and they are clearly doing very well out of it. But this part of the movie is much more slow-burn and less interesting than the portrayal of life as a carny in the first half.
During one of his shows, Stanton has an encounter with psychoanalyst Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), an audience member who is keen to debunk his act. This leads to a further meeting and the opportunity to work together, using Ritter’s high-profile connections for further profit. You know it’s only a matter of time before Stanton’s wreckless abuse of his power eventually begins to unravel, it just takes its sweet time in getting there. But when we do reach the final act, boy was it worth the wait. Brutal, gory and intense, with a bleak final scene that still manages to hit hard, even if you saw it coming.
I’m not usually a fan of Bradley Cooper but he does manage to convincingly portray the conman at the heart of Nightmare Alley. Rooney Mara is present for much of the second half, yet she feels greatly underused in her less than believable relationship with him. I would have also liked to have seen a little more of some of the other big names, particularly Willem Dafoe and Toni Collette, who were both brilliant, as always. Despite the lengthy run time though, I was never bored, and for the most part, I really did enjoy this.
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Web developer by day, with a movie and TV watchlist that continues to grow as much as my spare time reduces! My favourite movie is Inception and, despite what everyone says, I do not have a man-crush on Tom Cruise.