Nightmare Alley (2021) Review

Devoid of monsters (unless you want to count a certain prop) and supernatural elements, which are commonly associated with Guillermo del Toro’s works, Nightmare Alley marks the director’s rare departure into different genre territory for a change. Or more specifically, an old-school noir thriller.

Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name, Nightmare Alley isn’t the first time it has been adapted for the big screen. Edmund Goulding (best known for directing the Oscar-winning Grand Hotel in 1932) was the first one who did it back in 1947 with Tyrone Power playing the lead role. In del Toro’s version, Bradley Cooper (originally intended to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio) plays Stan, a mysterious drifter who ends up taking a job as a carny at a travelling carnival managed by Clem (Willem Dafoe).

From there, he gets to know some of the carnival crew members including “psychic” Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic-mentalist husband, Pete (David Strathairn). He also falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), a scantily-clad performer who wows the audience by “electrocuting” herself on the stage. Then, there’s the strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman), who look after Molly like his own daughter and he doesn’t particularly enjoy seeing Stan hanging around with her.

When a tragedy happens, Stan decided to make good use of his talent after mastering a few nifty tricks and codes for reading people’s minds, thanks to Pete’s little guidebook. So, he and Molly travel to the big city, where they work together in performing their act for the wealthy elite. Their show becomes an instant success, which later caught the attention of Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who takes an interest in him. She left him her business card and after Stan shows up in her office one day, they agree to work together to pull off a bigger con — a result that only sinks Stan deeper into a darker path.

A scene from "Nightmare Alley" (2021)

Having seen the 1947 black-and-white original, which ran nearly two hours, del Toro’s version is significantly longer at an almost extra 40 minutes. I was initially worried that he might end up like Peter Jackson overstretched his expensive King Kong remake into a bloated three-hour length when the original 1933 version only has a shorter running time at just 100 minutes.

Fortunately, my worries immediately disappeared the minute the film successfully establishes its bleak tone from the get-go and never let up throughout its 150-minute length. del Toro takes his time telling his story (he is also responsible for adapting the screenplay alongside Kim Morgan) at a deliberate, yet absorbing pace.

I have to admit his slow-burn approach might be a turn off for those with short attention spans. No doubt that Nightmare Alley demands your patience and attention but I like the way del Toro builds up the story while covering themes related to greed, sin and the dark side of human nature. It keeps me hooked while watching the film on the big screen, even though it relies heavily on dialogue and they turn out to be engrossing enough. del Toro, of course, never forget his filmmaking roots as he piles up ominous dread as the film progresses further. Likewise, he has an eye for haunting imagery with the help of Dan Laustsen’s atmospheric cinematography.

It also helps that del Toro bring out the best in his all-star ensemble cast, where Bradley Cooper’s piercing blue eyes and body gestures are more than expressive enough to do some of his best and yes, non-verbal acting ever seen during the earlier part of the film. Cooper also subverts his usual charm to play the kind of morally reprehensible character full of deceit and arrogance. His gradual change of character from a nobody drifter to a skilful mentalist, who becomes increasingly way over his head truly showcases Cooper’s superb acting range.

Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara in "Nightmare Alley" (2021)

Nightmare Alley also benefits from the solid supporting cast, notably Cate Blanchett as the manipulative femme fatale as Dr Lilith Ritter. Both Toni Collette and David Strathairn deserve equal mentions as Zeena and Pete and so do Rooney Mara and Ron Perlman, who played Molly and Bruno respectively. Willem Dafoe, in the meantime, is certainly born to play a slimy character as Clem.

After the measured build-up, del Toro ensures the pessimistic tone of his film only gets ugly both visually and thematically, with the former’s third act culminating in a violent and at times, shocking and harrowing climax. It’s a shame that Nightmare Alley fails to make money at the box office, where it only brought in a meagre US$7.5 million at the time of writing against a US$60 million budget. Perhaps it has to do with the wrong timing (I’m not sure why the studio thought it’s a good idea to release this film during the same weekend as Spider-Man: No Way Home) and the 150-minute length for such a period-era genre film is always a tough sell in today’s era.

Nightmare Alley is an overlooked gem that really needs to be seen in the cinema, particularly if you are a fan of del Toro and film noir in general. Not to mention this is one of del Toro’s best works to date that ranked alongside Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water.

Nightmare Alley will be released exclusively in TGV Cinemas on 13 January 2022.

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