NOC Review: A Stunning, Unsettling Trip Down ‘Nightmare Alley’

I’ve gone on record to discuss in depth my great love for filmmaker, Guillermo Del Toro. I won’t disguise the fact that the man is hands down my favorite filmmaker working today. Sure many love the Spielberg’s, the Campion’s, the Scorsese’s, and with good cause. But for me, no director has ever captivated me with imagination, wit, and maturity than Del Toro. So it should come to the surprise of absolutely no one that I really dug the hell out of Nightmare Alley!

Nightmare Alley is being considered by many as a filmmaking departure of a man known on the surface level as a genre-loving monster maker. But while there are no physical, fantastical, larger-than-life beasts in the film, there are monsters aplenty. Del Toro’s films have always been about the fine, brittle lines drawn by humans themselves to separate them from other-worldly creatures, and how oftentimes, humanity itself is the first to break it. And thus, Nightmare Alley is no exception. It depicts the idea that just because there are no literal monsters waiting on the other side of that line in this particular film, doesn’t mean the characters aren’t crossing it by the end anyway, and those running themes can still be explored — potentially in a more affecting way than ever before.

A strict adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name, the film depicts the story and choices of a small-time grifter and con man named Stanton Carlisle. Carlisle is a man running from a dark past, and finding his way into a traveling carnival troupe led by Willem Dafoe’s Clem Hoately. Slowly working his way and paying his dues through the carny life, he soon begins to use his skills at manipulation and mentalism to gain the trust of those around him, particularly that of Rooney Mara’s electrical girl, Molly. As the story continues, we see Carlisle’s inevitable rise to fame and success built on the backs of the marks he swindles and a promising, but dangerous partnership with a mysterious psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett), which ultimately leads him down a path that will lead to his inevitable downfall.

There are so many strong assets going for this movie. The look, feel, and tone Del Toro is going for is 100% worthy of the film noir title he’s gunning for, but through the filtered muted colors of a lens only Del Toro can give you. In other words, it’s stunningly gorgeous, and lovingly crafted from the tremendous production design, to the sensational cinematography courtesy of long-time Del Toro collaborator, Dan Laustsen (Shape of Water, Crimson Peak, Pacific Rim). Del Toro and Lausten are peas in a pod, and no one brings the mind of the master to life better than Lausten and his phenomenal work.

The acting is so utterly amazing in this film as well. Cooper’s Carlisle, for one, is a haunted broken shell of a man, obsessed with the idea of power and superiority. It’s a character that in many ways reminds me a lot of antiheroes/villains like Walter White. And Cooper’s portrayal really makes it hard and easy to dislike him all at once. There’s a layered complexity to this performance, building a character that seems happy, is really broken underneath, and likable and yet utterly despicable all at once. It is a challenging role with multiple layers that are peeled away after every scene as the film progresses.

You also feel so deeply for his long suffering other half, Rooney Mara’s Molly. She’s a woman that’s trying to keep him honest after he cons her into believing they could have a happy ending, only to break more and more the deeper he goes down the darker path further and further. Unfortunately, because it is a much quieter role than that of Cooper’s, much like her character in the film, Mara’s performance becomes heavily overshadowed, especially once the incomparable Blanchett steps into the film.

Blanchett, playing the black-hearted Lillith Ritter, once again completely dominates the spotlight the minute her character is introduced. It’s a commanding, nefarious performance that also takes root in the massive complexities and subtext beneath her character’s soul and the pages of Del Toro and partner, Kim Morgan’s script. The quintessential femme fatale and a force of nature to be reckoned with! It’s as if to say that if Cooper’s Carlisle is a sailor navigating his way through treacherous waters, Blanchett’s Ritter is the hurricane that he has literally no control over, as it pushes him to an inevitably pitch black fate.

In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, this is a dark, dark film; perhaps the darkest of all Del Toro’s work. And while many have considered Del Toro to be a master storyteller heavily inspired by fairy tales, one could argue that Nightmare Alley bears a bit more resemblance to a fable or cautionary tale about addiction. The journey of this man, his effect on others, and how other numerous factors end up leading him to make worse decisions with more dire consequences, is haunting and devastating, yet so very compelling, all at once!

The script and direction here are absolutely exquisite as well. Every moment, from what a character is eating to what the background sets and props symbolize is meant to foreshadow the ultimate conclusion of Carlisle’s journey. Del Toro and Morgan set up these dominoes in plain sight that don’t come together until the beautifully crafted finale, which brings a semblance of symmetry to the film. It’s a devilishly clever gut punch that stays with you long after the credits roll.

If I were to quibble very slightly at the film, it’s that the pacing is a bit slower towards the second half of the movie. However, it’s all incredibly necessary as the aforementioned dominoes are being set up. Del Toro and Morgan asking you to have faith because everything will inevitably become relevant by the end. But you may at first question the point of the dominoes before you see the big picture. Just go in and remember that everything Del Toro does as a director is intentional, and you’ll come to realize the slow burn is worth it!

Overall, Del Toro has done it again! Nightmare Alley is another brilliantly crafted, mesmerizing feature to add to this already legendary director’s filmography of fantastic films. Would I say I liked it as much as classics like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Shape of Water? Maybe not necessarily (after all it is hard to compare classics to classics). But it still is a masterful work that fits right into the Del Toro library of work perfectly. While I have a feeling it will be ignored by the awards circuit in a way The Shape of Water wasn’t (lightning in a bottle for a group of voters with supreme genre biases), I would still be remiss if I didn’t give this one a high recommendation, and encourage all of you to step right up, and take a trip down Nightmare Alley for yourselves!

Overall Score: B+

Nightmare Alley hits theaters this Friday, December 17!

One thought on “NOC Review: A Stunning, Unsettling Trip Down ‘Nightmare Alley’

  1. I have no doubts this film will be fantastic, but it’s definitely too dark for me right now (I’m familiar with the original). DVD later though.

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