REVIEW: Nightmare Alley (2021)

Guillermo Del Toro’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY – PHOTO: Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Studios.

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro – Screenplay by Guillermo Del Toro & Kim Morgan.

Based on the 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel of the same name (which was first adapted by Edmund Goulding in 1947), Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley follows a mysterious drifter named Stan Carlisle, who is hired by a carnival and soon becomes fascinated by the mentalist techniques that his co-workers have made a living off. When he leaves the carnival to thrive off the techniques that he has acquired, he became infatuated by the power of his act and the money that they lead him to. It won’t be long until he decides to fool the wrong person.

Guillermo Del Toro is one of my favorite filmmakers. I love how much passion he has for the filmmaking medium. I think of myself as a big fan and supporter of his career. One of my favorite reviews that I have written is probably my review of his Pan’s Labyrinth, which I’d love for you to check out. So, naturally, this star-studded Del Toro thriller has been on my radar for quite some time. Ultimately, it’s a film that I admire more than I love it, and I can see myself stubbornly returning to it over and over again with the hope that it’ll one day work for me as well as most of Del Toro’s other films do.

Thanks to the slow-burn nature of the film, I think it’s the kind of film that will make most modern moviegoing audiences quite impatient to figure out exactly what it is about, because if you haven’t seen the film on which it is based (or read the novel), then the marketing material really didn’t give a lot away. This is a film noir carnival thriller with incredible production design (the ‘freak/geek show’ looks spectacular) and decent-to-good performances, but I also found it to be quite uneven and too long.

It is a tale of two halves. The first hour is concerned with this traveling circus, and here the plot doesn’t move as quickly as it maybe should. This first half gives us interesting tidbits about Bradley Cooper’s character, and whenever that happens the film pulls you in. I thought this first half was the most effective when it focused on Cooper’s fascination with the different ways one can fool people. However, his fascination with Rooney Mara’s character felt a little bit underdeveloped, to me. The second half felt much more film noir-esque, to me, with Bradley Cooper in a big city using what he has procured to make money.

While I liked many elements in the first half, I have to say that I think it drags quite a bit, and the pacing of the film is off, in general. I think the second half feels more focused, as we see our main character’s film noir mentalist escapades turn sour. That said, the ending was somewhat predictable to me, and I think the film should’ve been more explicit about the backstory of Cooper’s character.

A couple of the performances feel perfectly tuned to the world that Guillermo Del Toro has built within this film, with Toni Collette being quite good and both Cate Blanchett and Willem Dafoe stealing scenes that they are in. I think they are the standouts here. That said, Bradley Cooper is also solid in the film.

This is the kind of film that is rarely made nowadays, so it feels old-school. I love that Guillermo Del Toro decided to use his Oscar-winning influence to get such an old-school film made in the current system. That said, I, to reiterate, think this is a film that is easier to admire than to love because it isn’t as spellbinding or focused as Guillermo Del Toro’s earlier work. It’s a fascinating film about the power of suggestion, deception, mentalism, and drifters, and it deserves a lot of praise for its brilliant production design, which has helped to make it one of the best-looking films of 2021.

7.9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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