Guillermo Del Toro is a fascinating director; from his earlier horror-oriented work to his action blockbusters and romance-centered dramas, and now his neo-noir drama re-imagining of Nightmare Alley, he has shown incredible versatility yet all of his work still feels like part of his style. He is an incredibly gifted writer and visual storyteller, able to adapt his style to the genre of choice but also able to bend the genre to fit his. Nightmare Alley is another example of his ability to do this; it’s a noir drama adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name with an ensemble cast; it’s also gothic, dark, and it has Ron Perlman in it, so it’s a Guillermo Del Toro movie through and through. Although it doesn’t match Pan’s Labyrinth, Nightmare Alley is one of Del Toro’s best works yet, despite the complete absences of his trademark monsters and fantastical elements.
Co-written (with Kim Morgan) and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, starring Bradley Cooper alongside stars such as Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, and Holt McCallany, Nightmare Alley is the story of Stanton Carlisle (Cooper), a drifter who joins a carnival during the post-Depression era and learns their tricks; driven by greed, he begins grifting his way to the top until he meets an antagonistic psychologist and a high-risk mark. As with most of Del Toro’s work, the writing and characters are standout features of the movie. This is a story of greed, humans being awful to each other or driven by spite, community and bonding in terrible times, amongst other prevalent themes; what makes the movie impactful and engaging are the brilliant performances. Blanchett, Dafoe, Jenkins, are all up to their usual standards, but I was impressed by Cooper as this was his best performance I’ve seen thus far. His portrayal of a drifter with a dark past, a manipulating and greedy grifter who brings pain and trouble everywhere he goes without caring or only pretending to care when it suits him, could easily have been too “on-the-nose” or dislikeable to care, but he finds a balance of being true to the character being a tragic warning and emitting humanity so the audience can find sympathy or understanding for him.
All the actors do a brilliant job because they have a great deal to work with; Del Toro is famous for having pages of backstory for every character he writes that he gives to the cast and crew to better understand and inform their decisions. However, Nightmare Alley feels especially suited to this approach and benefits from Del Toro and Morgan’s insane attention to detail – almost to a fault. Despite the movie being divided into two parts and, essentially, two different worlds, the worldbuilding and narrative construction of this story is awe-inspiring; it feels like a bunch of condensed stories feeding into each other to create a larger whole. As an example, during the carnival part, there is the examination of how this community sees their work; to some, it’s a scheme and they are ruthless and inhumane about it; to others, it’s a job and a way to keep food on the table and loved ones safe; some see it as a way to do what they do best in a safe and meaningful way. However, it is useful in the bigger picture sense, because they inform, shape, and contrast Carlisle’s viewpoint and attitude towards grifting. Furthermore, the deeper you dig, the more you compare, the further back you go with information from later in the movie, the more parallels and connecting dots you find and that is deeply satisfying. My only issue with it is that during the first viewing it did feel a bit overwhelming; when reveals happen and you can see so many connecting points to other bits and pieces that you are left a bit baffled by it, it isn’t as rewarding as it could be. I needed a “reset” and a clear mind to “understand” everything, which is fine, but that also included main character motivations, which is not great.
Even with that, I still found Nightmare Alley to be a brilliant movie and an engaging experience. The runtime of two and a half hours seems hefty, but Nightmare Alley manages to make that time fly by, which is always a great sign of ruthless efficiency and deep understanding of the story. Moreover, if you’re lucky enough to be living near a theater that shows the black and white version I’d highly recommend that despite the version I saw being the colored one; it is a great experience and the use of color is pretty good, but it feels like this movie should have been released first in black and white as some aesthetical choices make much more sense in that format.