Review: ‘Nightmare Alley’ is a timelessly dark twist on the American Dream

Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a modern noir that’s excellently crafted and surprisingly timeless, despite being a period drama based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name, which was first brought to the screen just one year later.

The story centers on Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle, who rises from being a mere carnival worker with a shadowy past to a full-blown mentalist by learning the tricks of the trade.

Tonally, the movie explores the dark underbelly of a shady profession as we follow an unlikable protagonist, similar to 2014’s macabre paparazzi tale Nightcrawler. Unlike many of del Toro’s films, though, Nightmare Alley doesn’t contain overt supernatural or fantastical elements, but it does retain many of the two-time Academy Award winner’s signature themes.

The gripping psychological thriller’s most notable spiritual bedfellow might not even be one of del Toro’s own, but rather Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Much like Nightmare Alley, the cat-and-mouse revenge story between warring magicians features twists, turns, backstabbing, and commanding performances amid a backdrop of shady showbusiness dealings and a penchant for the theatrical, with Cooper’s Stan slowly sinking deeper as his unquenchable thirst for fame and success begins to dominate every facet of his existence, very similar to the plight of Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier in Nolan’s Victorian-era tale.

Nightmare Alley is a challenging film in many ways, not least of all because Stan is painted as a despicable character pretty from the get-go. However, Cooper (who also produces) offers up one of his very best performances as we trace his evolution from low-level schemer to famed performer, before the inevitable fall from grace robs him of everything.

Though Cooper is the standout among the cast, there’s a high volume of really incredible performances to admire from the impeccable ensemble. Willem Dafoe’s morally cold carnival barker Clem is a regular scene-stealer, who imparts to Stan the cruel indifference required to manipulate alcoholics into becoming full-time geeks, or those who bite the heads off of chickens for the public’s entertainment.

Toni Collete’s wandering Zeena Krumbein and David Strathairn’s alcoholic husband Pete are also fantastic as a couple who know all the tricks of deduction, using coded language and speaking in generalities to manipulate an audience into taking their clairvoyance at face value, something that becomes integral to Stan’s own rise up the ranks.

The cast are uniformly excellent across the board, but Rooney Mara’s Molly Cahill does come across as a little one-note. That’s no fault of the star, who embodies the character with a sense of innocence and purity, but digging deeper into what makes her tick would have gone a long way to fleshing out an arc that often finds itself sidelined in favor of Stan’s misdeeds.

The first half of Nightmare Alley is the most accessibly enjoyable, with every frame bursting with richness and detail, and it boasts the incredible production design we’ve come to expect from the meticulous del Toro, one of cinema’s most dedicated world-builders.

Once the stage is set, the second half introduces a raft of New York elites after Stan and Molly reinvent themselves. No longer mere carnies, the duo bedazzle the wealthy with their glitzy and glamorous new act, before they find themselves caught up in a web of deceit and duplicity with Cate Blanchett’s Lilith Ritter, Richard Jenkins’ darkly bereaved Ezra Grindle, and Peter MacNeill’s Judge Charles Kimball in the eye of the storm.

The film drags ever so slightly in the middle compared to the first half, and trimming just a touch of fat from the 150-minute running time would have significantly tightened up the pace. However, the final act — and the very last scene in particular — is worth the price of admission alone. Stan’s descent is just as rapid as his rise, and Cooper’s work in the final minutes of Nightmare Alley is a masterclass in how to convey heartbreak and mania without uttering a single word.

Then again, having been revealed as increasingly irredeemable the more we learn about him through flashbacks and plot points, a counterpoint of sorts to inject Stan with a degree of humanity and sympathy to sand down some of his bleaker edges would have seen the culmination of his story pack a heftier punch, but that admittedly doesn’t make it any less tragic.

Overall, the writing, performances, direction, and cinematography of Nightmare Alley are all top notch in virtually every way. The spiderweb plot that unfolds in the back half is also something of a delayed virtue since there are so many subtle setups, payoffs, and points of intrigue that linger in the mind, undoubtedly setting it up as a film that demands to be seen multiple times.

Despite being one of 2021’s best movies, Nightmare Alley flopped at the box office after Disney subsidiary Searchlight Pictures decided to release it on the same day as Spider-Man: No Way Home. Having landed four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, not to mention del Toro overseeing the release of a black-and-white version, we can only hope that audiences continue to discover the filmmaker’s incredible passion project as it rides a wave of renewed buzz.

Movie Review: 'Nightmare Alley'

Despite taking place in the 1940s, Guillermo del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley' is a timeless meditation on the dark side of the American Dream.

About the author

Danny Peterson

Danny Peterson

Danny Peterson covers entertainment news for WGTC and has previously enjoyed writing about housing, homelessness, the coronavirus pandemic, historic 2020 Oregon wildfires, and racial justice protests. Originally from Juneau, Alaska, Danny received his Bachelor's degree in English Literature from the University of Alaska Southeast and a Master's in Multimedia Journalism from the University of Oregon. He has written for The Portland Observer, worked as a digital enterprise reporter at KOIN 6 News, and is the co-producer of the award-winning documentary 'Escape from Eagle Creek.'