Hollywood has been going through a period of nostalgia in recent years. We have seen an abundance of franchises, sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes dominating the cinematic landscape, and it’s easy to understand why. These films provide a sense of comfort and escapism for audiences as they offer a sense of familiarity. One such example is Guillermo del Toro’s latest release, Nightmare Alley, which is based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham and the second film adaptation following the iconic 1946 film noir of the same name that stars Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. The film follows protagonist Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man who becomes a carny after killing his father and burning his house down. During his tenure at the carnival, he becomes interested in Mentalism, eventually falling in love with carny Molly (Rooney Mara) and the two leave the carnival to embark on their own touring act with dire consequences. With a starry cast led by Cooper and Rooney, while also featuring the likes of Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins and Willem Dafoe among many more, Nightmare Alley is a staggering 150-minute mammoth of a film that chronicles the rise and fall of its protagonist is flamboyant fashion that is every bit a carnival attraction in itself.
The film is directed by Guillermo del Toro who co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Morgan. As expected from a del Toro film, the direction is stellar and captivating with meticulous detail and precision in every frame. Where del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water has its fixations on the aquatic and incorporates this element into the aesthetic and flowing nature of the film, Nightmare Alley literally opens in flames as Stan sets his father’s house on fire. This fiery nature runs through the entire film as we see Stan revisit this moment time and time again, especially in moments of reflection. Where the film experiences somewhat of a downfall is in the writing as the pacing doesn’t feel as consistent throughout. The audience is thrown into the events as Stan sets fire to the house and immediately boards a bus that takes him to the carnival; however, the film soon slows down in pacing, especially during the final act and there are far too many endings.
Bradley Cooper takes on the lead role of Stan that was originally played by film noir icon, Tyrone Power in the original 1947 film. Cooper has established himself as one of Hollywood’s best leading men having garnered nine Oscar nominations with four of these being in acting. He is the perfect choice for Stan and has that brilliant Southern drawl and charisma needed for the role as the character works his way up the social ladder. What makes Cooper’s performance so captivating is how unpredictable he is and the way that the audience learns more about him throughout the film. It is within the second half of the film that we discover the whole truth about what happened between him and his dad. While Tyrone Power will always be associated with the role of Stan, Cooper doesn’t try to copy or imitate his performance but provides a darker angle that lends to his unpredictability.
Playing Molly is Rooney Mara, who proves that there is a lot to this role than meets the eye. To assume that Molly is simply Stan’s love interest is to dismiss this incredible performance as Molly has plenty of personal freedom and doesn’t feel pressure to take her time in deciding what she wants to do with her life. Mara is the perfect onscreen partner for Cooper because she is always capable of delivering performances that are more subtle but still pack their punch. While Cooper’s performance is big and loud, Mara provides a nuanced and quieter performance that still holds plenty of power and shouldn’t be overlooked. What makes Rooney Mara one of the best actresses working today is her adaptability and ability to steal a scene while also playing well against others when needed.
The second half of the film is dominated by Cate Blanchett who plays the mysterious psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter. Her first scene comes later in the film as she attends one of Stan and Molly’s shows, attempting to uncover their tricks. Blanchett’s Lilith seems charming and disarming as she manages to seduce Stan over time as they come together to scam wealthy men by pretending that Stan can communicate with the dead when he is using information that Lilith has been feeding him as they were patients of her. Blanchett’s final scene is genuinely terrifying and shows a darker range to her acting that we haven’t really seen before.
Another brilliant performance worth mentioning comes from the always brilliant, Richard Jenkins, who plays the unpredictable and eccentric Ezra Grindle. Grindle is an extremely intimidating man and incredibly wealthy to the point where the money blinds Stan from the blatant threats that are present. Jenkins provides unsettling energy to Grindle and even though he isn’t in a lot of scenes in the film, he steals the scenes that he is in. Despite the limited amount of screen time, we learn so much about Grindle’s character and want to learn more thanks to Jenkins’ impeccable performance.
Nightmare Alley may not have the same level of magic that del Toro brought with The Shape of Water, but it cannot be denied that he is a true visionary and is always capable of creating beautiful aesthetics and drawing out brilliant performances from the star-studded cast. Where Nightmare Alley falls short is its writing as it feels like two completely different films that have been combined yet don’t quite tonally mesh, while the film’s length runs for too long. If there was more tonal connection and consistency throughout and a shorter running time, this would be viewed as a front-runner in the awards season.
What did you think of Nightmare Alley? Let me know in the comments below!
Nightmare Alley is out in cinemas now!