Nightmare Alley is a deceptive film. In fact, it’s a movie about deception. If you were to watch a trailer for the film, you would probably be left wondering what it’s even about. Is it about psychics? Con artists? Ghosts? Mediums? Circus folk? Monsters? Nightmare Alley, like Willem Dafoe’s carnival barker Clem, talks up a big show. There are sights to behold and rousing emotions to experience! You will see things you will never believe! But what sights will you see? Until you actually sit your butt down in the theater, the movie doesn’t want you to know what you’ll be experiencing.
It’s been over a week since I’ve seen Guillermo del Toro’s latest and I won’t say I’m polarized by what he’s made. To be honest, I quite like what he’s done here. Yet if Nightmare Alley is going to be regarded as his most polarizing film, I wouldn’t argue with you about it in the slightest. It feels like it’s a bit too ambitious for its own good and doesn’t come together until the climax. It’s a great climax for sure, but you’re gonna have to go through a lot to get there.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Release Date: December 17, 2021 (Theatrical)
Nightmare Alley is a film divided into two completely different parts, separated by time, tone, and atmosphere. Both halves feature Bradley Cooper as Stan Carlisle, who begins the film as a man that joins the circus as a carny. He begins to develop friendships with several of the carnies, eventually picking up some of their skills at deception and grifting. Fast forward two years and Stan has left the circus to become a “psychic,” performing for the urban elite and scamming money off of them by pretending to contact their dead relatives and friends. Eventually, he meets up with a psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), and the two of them concoct a plan to scam as many wealthy socialites who visit them as possible.
If I had to describe Nightmare Alley as an amalgamation of films, it would be heavily based on Shutter Island, Crimson Peak, and The Prestige. You have the deep psychological mind games that Stan and Dr. Ritter play on their customers, as well as themselves, that isn’t dissimilar from Scorsese’s thriller, revolving around ideas and plots that would feel right at home in Christopher Nolan’s classic, but given the grime and foreboding sense of the dread from del Toro’s 2015 Gothic romance.
It’s an odd combination, to be sure, but at times it works brilliantly. The earlier scenes at the carnival give the setting a real sense of darkness with suffering lingering under the shadows of the tents. There’s a scene fairly early on where Stan and Clem are eating breakfast and talking about one of the attractions at the carnival, the Geek. The story of the Geek is deeply disturbing, but it establishes that sense of underlying grime that is palpable throughout the film. No one is truly good and everyone is hiding some kind of horror under the surface. It’s all just a matter of how much they want others to see.
Bradley Cooper gives an admirable performance as Stan, though it takes him time to truly grow into the character. It feels almost intentional as Stan only really comes to shine when he feels that he has the skills to take charge of the room. It does leave the audience with the fact that we’re following around a character for the first hour of the movie that really is hard to gauge and connect with. He’s a cipher during the earlier moments. He blends into the woodwork as other, more interesting, characters appear at the carnival, but aren’t given anything to work with. To make matters worse, with the exception of one scene, the majority of the supporting cast at the carnival disappear after the time skip leaving a lot of that development to just be thematic dressing.
It’s good thematic dressing at least. If there’s one general theme I feel is the core of the film, it’s the idea of regret. All of the characters have some kind of regret which makes them human, but the true monsters of the film are the ones who have none. The ones who accept that their actions are evil and don’t have any emotional qualms about why they do what they do. They do it for business or for revenge and they have no personal grievances about why they do it. Stan may not be the most honorable person around. In fact, he’s a greedy scam artist who’s only out for himself. By the end of the film, however, you can’t help but feel for the guy after everything he goes through.
But man oh man does it take a while to get there. When I said that Nightmare Alley feels like two films, I literally meant it. Running at about two and a half hours, the film is bloated to the point where it could have used some leaner editing to get it down to possibly two. While the first half of the film is pretty straightforward, it takes us far too long to get into what would be considered the main plot once the time skip does occur. We spend our time following Stan and his wife, Molly (Rooney Mara), as they perform their act and bicker amongst each other. At its best, it spends too much time on scenes that didn’t need to be as long as it thinks it needs to be. At its worst, it’s tedious and doesn’t trust the audience enough to understand what’s happening.
My thoughts on the film inevitably become positive when I think about its ending. The ending of the film is, frankly, the best ending that del Toro has crafted. In fact, I would go so far as to say the ending of Nightmare Alley is the best ending to any film I’ve seen this year. It’s a perfect encapsulation of despair that completely and utterly soaks you into how dark this world really is. It’s a haunting and tragic conclusion that feels absolutely perfect given its characters and what they do. I can’t imagine the film ending in any other way and through the quality of this ending alone, my opinion of the film is far more positive than it would have been if its last scene was an earlier one.
That still doesn’t mean that Nightmare Alley isn’t a conflicting film. There are a whole host of great horror movies that came out this year, from Candyman to Malignant to Last Night in Soho, and while Nightmare Alley may have the best production values of them all, it’s a bit too inconsistent and lacks the cohesion that those films have. All three of those films before it are horror films that are going to leave an impact, but Nightmare Alley is probably going to be remembered more for its visuals and the fact that it has del Toro’s name attached to it than for its own merits as a movie.
Again, I still enjoyed my time with Nightmare Alley. It’s a sleek movie that left me pondering its themes and ideas way longer than I thought they would. It left me with a desire to watch it again to see what else I can find. It’s a unique film, to be sure, but I don’t think it exceeds the three films that I mentioned above. It’s a bit too scattershot in its execution and pacing for me to really give it a universal recommendation. But if you’re interested in a dark psychological look at scam artists and the people they try to manipulate into believing them, you should have a good time with this. Consider this another hit for del Toro, but only barely.