In Nightmare Alley, the scope and suspense of 1940s Noir is lovingly represented. Del Toro’s dark, sprawling film delivers gorgeous frames, showcases fearsome performances, yet sometimes feels constrained by its classic influences.
When the aimless Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) takes a job as a carny at a traveling circus, he ingratiates into a motley crew of damaged souls and engaging artists. The circus serves as a refuge, and is filled with people running from their past, well, all but one that is. Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) is a light among the darkness, a talented and exuberant performer born into the huckster lifestyle without the emotional baggage of choosing it. The film documents her and Stan’s whirlwind romance and reveals his mysterious checkered past.
Nightmare Alley has the feel of a Twilight Zone episode, and the look of a Goya painting. Del Toro is in top form, crafting an atmospheric and enthralling noir revival. It is based on the nihilistic book of the same name, from William Lindsay Graham, and the film feels novelistic in its execution. It covers a long amount of time, separated by chapters, all while engaging and layered characters float in and out of the story. It has all the harshness and depression you would expect from a parable about downtrodden circus performers, but Stanton and Molly’s relationship provides hope and optimism throughout. This film touches on themes of self-destruction, inherent evil, and the cycle of addiction. Although they are not supernatural as one would expect, Nightmare Alley still features Del Toro’s typical monsters in all their horrid glory.
The look of Nightmare Alley is spectacular. Dan Lausten gives each frame such meticulous care. The lighting feels simplistic and intentional which gives the film a timeless quality. The production design beautifully represents a 1920’s circus and highlights our protagonist’s moral descent through various tunnels, spirals, and obscured alleys. Everything was either dark and textured, befitting the tone, or bright and golden with classic art deco accents. Del Toro slowly glides us through quieter moments, letting us fully soak in the dense and bizarre world he created.
Bradley Cooper is perfectly cast as the charming and Machiavellian showman. He really feels at home in this classic noir setting. Honestly, this cast as a whole feels handpicked for me specifically, and is one of my favorite acting ensembles of all time. Willem Dafoe as the ringleader of a depraved circus, Cate Blanchett as a cold, calculating psychologist, Toni Collette as a jaded fortune-teller, Richard Jenkins as a wealthy grieving tyrant, I could go on and on. Every supporting role was played by someone undervalued and superb and I had so much fun watching them pop up throughout the film.
My main issues with Nightmare Alley stem from pacing, specifically in the second act. These sequences felt stretched and I had trouble finding justifications for it, aside from being too faithful to earlier adaptations or the source material. What may have worked in a novel just felt somewhat overdrawn in this format. As the film went on, it felt more and more confined by its 1940’s noir homages. I kept finding myself wanting Del Toro to break from the mold, or try to re-contextualize the films he adores so much. While the ending does feel fitting and satisfying, it also feels conventional given its influences and I couldn’t help but long for a more distinctive take from the unique director.