Nightmare Alley is a noir for people who don’t watch noir

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | Dec. 16, 2021

Nightmare Alley
Opens Friday 17
3.5 out of 5

As entertaining and visually stunning as Guillermo del Toro’s movies are, his favorite subject — who’s the real monster? — has become repetitive. He explored it in Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak and, most recently, The Shape of Water.

In Nightmare Alley, Del Toro doesn’t quite drop the subject but he chooses a different approach: what if the monster wanted to be a man? To broach the question, the Oscar winner chooses noir, a genre known for wretchedness hiding underneath a patina of civility.

More a remake of the 1947 Tyrone Power film than an adaptation of the William Lindsay Gresham novel, Nightmare Alley follows the trajectory of one Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a down-on-his-luck grifter who joins a traveling carnival for a meal and a place to sleep. Intelligent and unencumbered by morals, Stanton befriends an alcoholic “mind reader” (David Strathairn) while bedding his wife (Toni Collette). Once he’s taken everything he can from the fair, he moves onto bigger prey.

Following his so-called formative years at the carnival, we reencounter a more successful Carlisle headlining a high-end act in the city. Yearning for more riches, he devises a plan to separate credulous millionaires from their money. Since this is film noir, you already know his perception of himself and reality are at some distance from each other.

I’m seldom high on Bradley Cooper: his smugness permeates each one of his roles (particularly the ones that don’t call for it) but here it fits like a glove. We don’t follow him because we like him, but because we wonder if he’ll get away with it or get his comeuppance.

The rest of the cast performs ‘types’ (the strongman, the ingenue, the mark), and each actor makes the part their own, especially Willem Dafoe as the unscrupulous carnival owner with an infectious joie-de-vivre and Cate Blanchett as the femme fatale with a hard edge. Blanchett out-purrs Veronica Lake and is a truly unnerving presence.

Del Toro takes full advantage of having the budget to bring his version of Nightmare Alley to life. The film looks incredible. Not only has the filmmaker — known for his attention to detail —built a fully functional carnival to stage the film’s top half; Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, frequent collaborator and Oscar nominee for The Shape of Water, creates some stunning visuals. Something as simple as a wide angle shot of the fair during magic hour looks breathtaking.

 Del Toro has yet to master poignancy. The filmmaker leaves nothing to the imagination and his bluntness might be preventing him from elevating his craft. While his movies are emotionally charged, they seldom trigger the same feelings in the audience. Sure, the storytelling is top notch and his films an enriching visual experience. But more often than not, his movies leave me cold. That said, Nightmare Alley represents a step forward by showing the director’s willingness to abandon his comfort zone in pursuit of greatness.