‘Nightmare Alley’: A brilliant noir thriller from Guillermo del Toro

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Though released in theaters back in December, director Guillermo del Toro’s latest output “Nightmare Alley” has hit streaming, being added to HBO Max just a few days ago. 

An adaptation of a 1946 book, the film takes place in the late 1930s as Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) joins a carnival company and learns from the masters of trickery. What unfolds is a spiraling noir, full of twists and turns. 

There are a number of reasons why “Nightmare Alley” works as a film, but you can’t start anywhere else than del Toro’s greatness as a director. In his first film since the Oscar-decorated “The Shape of Water,” del Toro mixes genres masterfully, taking a psychological thriller and adding noir as well as his signature horror elements to it. It is just impossible to imagine what this picture would look and feel like with a different director at the helm. Especially in the sequences that take place in the carnival, del Toro’s mastery of horror imagery is on display yet again. That being said, I would not consider “Nightmare Alley” a horror film, as there are only a few scenes where the horror elements are at the forefront. 

“Nightmare Alley” is also elevated by Cooper’s performance. It has been quite some time since Cooper played the lead in a feature film (his last being in his directorial effort for “The Star is Born”), and this film makes it clear that it has been far too long. Other actors may have played this role in a more over-the-top fashion, but Cooper’s more subdued, naturalistic performance is much more effective and allows for character arcs to unfold in a more interesting way. Cate Blanchett is also fantastic in this film in her supporting role. She does not have as many scenes to shine as Cooper does, but when she does, her performance is electric. I can see her earning an Academy Award nomination in the supporting actress category, either for this role or perhaps in her role in the film “Don’t Look Up.” 

While the cinematography and acting are absolutely brilliant in this picture, the only reason I would not put this above del Toro’s other works is due to the pacing. As we have discussed in many past reviews, a strong pacing and rhythm are essential to the execution of a film. A film needs to move at the pace where the scene transitions feel most natural and where the audience does not get bored due to constancy or lack of new material. “Nightmare Alley” has many scenes that are incredibly well-paced, but there are quite a few sequences that feel a bit too long. The film certainly did not need to be two and a half hours. I think a two-hour runtime would’ve fit it much better. The film stays interesting throughout, but the plot gets much more enthralling as you progress deeper, and I think that narrative should have gotten rolling a bit earlier in the runtime.  

Nonetheless, “Nightmare Alley” is a brilliant thriller, with fantastic cinematography and direction from the masterful del Toro, and brilliant performances from Cooper and Blanchett. If you love a good psychological thriller, this is a perfect film to put on your watch list. 

Rating: 4.35/5 

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