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FILM REVIEW: Nightmare Alley (2021)

Updated: Jan 25

Nightmare Alley - New Release Review

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins

Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan

Produced by: J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro, Bradley Cooper

Cinematography by: Dan Lausten

Original Score by: Nathan Johnson


In 1940s New York, down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle endears himself to a clairvoyant and her mentalist husband at a travelling carnival. Using newly acquired knowledge, Carlisle crafts a golden ticket to success by swindling the elite and wealthy. Hoping for a big score, he soon hatches a scheme to con a dangerous tycoon with help from a mysterious psychiatrist who might be his most formidable opponent yet.


I really enjoyed 'Nightmare Alley'. The performances are fantastic, the cinematography breathtaking, and the score wonderfully creepy. And yet I can’t help but feel something is missing. I walked into the cinema expecting to love this film. I liked it but I didn’t love it. And I’m not even sure why. I love Del Toro’s work, I love the neo-noir 1940s old carnival/fairground and urban New York settings. I love the story of a conman using his learned talents to put on a performance and ultimately get his comeuppance at the film’s climax, but still, there’s something missing.

We’ll start with what I did like. Bradley Cooper is fantastic. I avoided trailers because I wanted to go into the film with no prior knowledge so when I saw that Cooper was the main character I was, unfairly, skeptical. The guy from 'The Hangover' in a Guillermo del Toro film, seriously? I was proved wrong, though, and I’m grateful I was. The role of Stanton Carlisle was originally meant to go to Leonardo DiCaprio, and I think he would have played him as a cross between his 'Shutter Island' and 'Django Unchained' performances, which isn’t the vibe 'Nightmare Alley' was going for. It's stylised as Golden Era/Old Hollywood and I think DiCaprio is too much of a modern actor, too much of a big name quite frankly, to pull that off. Cooper, however, immerses himself into the world so completely that you often forget it’s him, you only see Stan. Cooper is fantastic.

The supporting cast are fantastic too. Toni Collette and Cate Blanchett are brilliant, though out of the two Blanchett is far better suited to the old school noir atmosphere the film is going for; she is my favourite performer in 'Nightmare Alley' by far. And of course, we have a brilliant cast of carneys including the dastardly Willem Dafoe and the imposing Ron Perlman. Richard Jenkins can also play deranged really well; I loved watching his performance.

The world-building is, as always with Del Toro, fully realised and immersive. The use of light, shadow, and smoke is wonderfully atmospheric and feels like an old sepia photograph touched up like a Golden Era of Hollywood headshot. The story, in usual Del Toro fashion, is in it's essence about humanity. It’s a story of greed, corruption, manipulation. The carneys are the good guys; Stan and the respected psychiatrist are the real villains.

On paper, the film is a 10 out of 10. However I can’t go any higher than 9 out of 10 and here is why: it doesn’t feel like a Del Toro film. If I didn’t know he directed this, I don’t think it would have influenced my opinion but knowing that he not only directed it but also wrote the screenplay, I can’t help but feel a little crestfallen. Yes, the story is dark and full of monsters and gore and shocking but highly stylised imagery, but it feels a bit too safe. I see very little of Del Toro’s unique spark of innovation here.

In an interview with NME, the director said, “without a doubt this is the movie I’m the proudest of. I abandoned a certain sense of pageantry and whimsy, and I went for a more sober, older approach to the material in a way that I’m really happy with. Finding a change of register at age 57 was just so exciting for me.” I can’t argue with that – he set out to achieve what he meant to, and then some. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps I was putting Del Toro into a whimsical little box of the fantastical.

In response to there being no supernatural/fantasy elements in 'Nightmare Alley', Del Toro went on to say, “on a personal level I have never been happier, but as a citizen of the planet I’ve never been more anxious. There’s a sense of doom in the air, and a very disorienting blur between truth and lies. It can be ecological, personal or social, but there is just a very end of days feel to everything at the moment.” And that is true. I feel that, I get that. Especially the line between truth and lies. People have access to information 24 hours a day and humans simply haven’t evolved quickly enough to endure that; we don’t have the mental capacity to keep up with the technological advances being made. 'Nightmare Alley' captures that sense of doom well because it is not only a universal concern that makes films like this timeless, but it is also very timely, in that our current environment is overcome by egotistical people like Stan who, as Toni Collette’s character’s husband reminds him, “believe the lie”. It is dangerous to believe the lie.

Overall, I can’t fault 'Nightmare Alley' on anything major. It looks beautiful, it has a great cast, a great story, and a fantastic soundtrack. I went in with certain expectations, and that’s on me. Del Toro did a fantastic job with this film.

Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

- Victoria Brown

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