Review: Though a Gorgeous Feast for the Eyes, 'Nightmare Alley' is Lifeless in its Execution

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 8, 2022

'Nightmare Alley'
'Nightmare Alley'  (Source:Searchlight Pictures)

A remake of the 1947 Tyrone Power starrer, which was based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, Guillermo del Toro's "Nightmare Alley" is a gorgeous feast for the eyes, but inert in its execution.

I realize I will be in the minority here with this one, as critics are already raving about how beautiful the film is and how its all-star cast give it their all. Sure, those aspects are all on display, and I suspect nominations and wins for production design, cinematography, and costumes. But a pretty film does not mean a "good" film.

Truth be told, I've never been wowed by Mr. del Toro's films, although I respect his craftmanship. While "Pan's Labyrinth" grew on me, his other work just never wowed me like it did everyone else. "The Devil's Backbone" felt like a number of movies I had seen before (granted, I'm a horror guy and see a lot); "Crimson Peak" is another stunning movie to look at, but other than that it was dull; and "The Shape of Water" never moved beyond a mildly entertaining adult "E.T." for me.

With "Nightmare Alley," I can't speak to the original, not having seen it. And maybe the cryptic advertising made it seem more like it could move into supernatural territory (it doesn't), so I was expecting something else. But what I witnessed was a psychological thriller that is 45 minutes too long and feels like two different movies.

Bradley Cooper takes on the Tyrone Power role as Stan Carlisle who we first meet as he buries a body under the floorboards of a house and sets it on fire. Got it: He's a man of mystery, and probably not on the up and up. He takes a train to a small town, where he stumbles upon a carnival and joins the crew. There, he meets a host of interesting folks, including the local tarot card reader Zeena (Toni Collette), her alcoholic ex-magician husband, Pete (David Strathairn), strong man Bruno (Ron Perlman), and sweet Molly (Rooney Mara), who does an act where electricity flows through her. The whole affair is run by Clem (Willem Dafoe), who also takes care of the "freak" of the show — a wiry, feral man who chomps the heads off chickens.

After scoping out the grounds, Stan eventually falls in with Zeena, and starts to learn the "tricks" of her trade. He finds he has a knack for manipulating people and situations to create the illusion of magic — or to get out of some wily situations. After a variety of events at the carnival, we jump two years forward. Stan is now a famous mentalist with the assistance of Molly. They have formed a relationship, but Stan's success has gone to his head, and he doesn't treat her so well.

Enter Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who slinks around like a classier Jessica Rabbit, challenging Stan's claims that he can read minds. The two eventually team up to take someone down, but neither can be trusted, and a sort of sexy cat and mouse game begins.

All of this happens with stunning visuals, jaw-dropping sets, and enough constant snow you'd think no one should be able to open their front doors. As this is a film noir, everything is all sharp lighting and angles, mimicking the style of the day and attempting to translate it to today.

But something about the entire affair doesn't work. When we jump ahead two years, the most interesting characters disappear. They return for one bland scene, but they are just set up for Stan to learn his future career. So why did we spend forty-five minutes with them? The film is also hopelessly talky, trying to re-create a '40s-style rhythm that never quite takes. Blanchett revels in her femme fatale role, but it ends up coming across as too posed and a bit campy while others — even those in the carnival — come across as fully realized human beings.

Cooper is quite good here, and I can understand why he's been mentioned as an Oscar contender, but he's saddled by a character we can't possibly root for. This caused me not to care what happened to him, so watching his scheme succeed or not had no immediacy. Mara's long-suffering girlfriend has the best character arc, but she's mostly just along for the ride.

The script, by del Toro and Kim Morgan, seems overstuffed to the point of exploding. Characters appear then disappear without being fully utilized. The always-wonderful Mary Steenburgen shows up as someone Stan manipulates, and this causes tremendous tragedy. While it's mentioned later, it doesn't have the relevancy it could have. We don't see Stan truly see the error of his ways. We just watch him devolve.

While there is praise to be given in the technical departments and it really is well-directed, the film feels overindulgent and might have made a better mini-series than a two hour and thirty-five minute film.

Guillermo's latest isn't really a nightmare... but it wasn't up my alley.

"Nightmare Alley" will debut on all major digital platforms March 8 and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on March 22

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.