Nightmare Alley Review: Interesting ideas get overtaken by a boring story
Given the incredible cast involved and a visionary like Guillermo del Toro in the directors’ chair, Nightmare Alley showed a lot of potential to be a perfectly mysterious, suspense-driven noir story. However, del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsey Gresham 1947 novel struggles to keep viewers engaged in its bleak and boring noir story.
The film follows a man named Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) who hooks up with a traveling circus as he runs from a dark past. As Stan becomes more ingrained in the circus and people warm up to him, he becomes a sort of apprentice to aging mentalist Pete (David Strathairn) who teaches Stan the tricks and trades of mentalism. Eventually mastering mentalism and showing his capabilities as a leading man through his undeniable charm, Stan takes his skills on the road and finds success in impressing rich folks with his mental abilities. However, this success leads Stan down a path with high stakes that could put his life in jeopardy after he becomes entangled with a powerful socialite and a psychiatrist with underlying motives.
Early on, there are certain aspects of Nightmare Alley that easily hook you and remain engaging throughout. The initial moments of Stan becoming familiarized with the carny lifestyle and Pete’s tricks to wow audiences with a mentalist show are incredibly engaging with the immersive detail and experiential storytelling given to it. With Stan being a mostly silent protagonist when he first becomes involved in the carnival, he acts as a great audience surrogate that makes see everything feel like a real peek behind the curtain. His discoveries of the tricks behind some of the acts are really interesting and the way that owner Clem (Willem Dafoe) keeps an abusive “Geek” act fleshes out the darker parts of circus life. It’s paints an incredibly dark, but sadly realistic portrayal of how grimy and abusive circus life can be and kicks off the generally bleak and seedy feel of Nightmare Alley.
Stan’s experiences with Pete and his fellow mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) are just as captivating and compelling as they teach him how to appear like a mind-reader. It’s deeply fascinating to see Stan learn the concepts of having a confident stage presence, word code systems to narrow down the reads, and utilizing social skills to keep crowd control when things go wrong. It’s a great peak behind the curtain of mentalists and mediums and it’s great too that the impact of their profession is delved into. These ideas that their shows aren’t sensational “spook shows” and rather meant to be for slight entertainment or add direction for the “mark.” It may not seem like it, but Pete and Zeena understand the power of their profession and the lives that they could ruin in the process – something that Stan throws to the wayside in his efforts for stardom.
Unfortunately, Nightmare Alley stops being interesting once Stan decides to abandon the carnival with his “beloved” Molly (Rooney Mara), another performer who works with electricity, and embark on a dark path to stardom. Once the more noir mystery elements of Nightmare Alley start to come out from Stan trying to con folks much more powerful than typical carnival attendees, it becomes a totally boring drag as the pace slows down immensely and the plot becomes overly complicated. None of the characters seen from the carnival return in any sort of meaningful fashion and everything new that’s introduced is far less interesting and only adds more names and personas to learn. The intense study of mentalism and Stan’s use of it just turns into this long-con that isn’t all that compelling and just gets confusing in the final act.
Cooper’s lead performance is probably one of the Nightmare Alley’s strongest elements as he delivers a perfectly cunning sense of charm and sells the film’s admittedly horrifying ending incredibly well. None of the other performances ever really match Cooper’s though and the other characters simply don’t have the depth to add anything worthwhile to the story. Most of the other characters are basically just standard noir tropes that make Nightmare Alley’s second half feel more generic than the first. Stan’s final plan isn’t satisfying to watch because of how rushed the third act feels and the final twists with the film’s femme fatale, psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), is so underwhelming because of how sudden and typical it is for noir stories. The horrifying end that Stan receives at least makes Nightmare Alley leave a mark on you with how words from Clem to Stan about Geek shows comes back in a disturbing way, but it doesn’t make the tortuously slow and uneventful lead up to it remotely worth it.
There are great parts to Nightmare Alley that make it initially intriguing that unfortunately dissipate as the film leans more towards its boring and dragging noir story beats that turn the film into a tiresome watch and one of del Toro’s blandest films to date.