Nightmare Alley (2022) SPOILER-FREE Review: Spook Shows and Neo-noir Nightmares

by Beanie White

Guillermo del Toro… He gives us dark fairy tales (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006), violent gothic romance (Crimson Peak, 2015), aquatic escapism (The Shape of Water, 2017), and now fantastical neo-noir in the form of the highly anticipated Nightmare Alley.

We are launched into this new del Toro offering with an act of dark ambiguity, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), buries and burns a body. Whose body? That we don’t yet know. He then acquires a job at a travelling carnival where he works with the illustrious Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), learning the tricks and cheats of clairvoyance, a profession that has the power to corrupt and contain the minds of those stricken with grief. When an accident forces Stan to leave his new life behind, he and fellow carny/love interest, Molly (Rooney Mara), head to take the big city by storm with their adaptation of Zeena’s act. After a two-year time jump Stan has become a huge success in the elite inner-circle of New York’s wealthiest citizens, enter psychologist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a fearsome femme fatale with an agenda of her own…

For me, the set-up almost feels like two separate movies (more bang for your buck). The dark tale of a man finding himself in the mystical world of a traditional 20th century carnival, with a shift (after that super crafty time-jump) to a classical neo-noir packed with persuasion, punches of graphic violence (the Guillermo gore special) and a twisty journey to an ending that brings us pretty close to where we started.

This film is a stylistic dream. In early scenes, Stan is swallowed by a “sinner’s funhouse,” hinting at the future of his character. In the second half he is engulfed by Dr. Ritter’s marble art-deco office, shifting through sets and scenery always slightly out of place. We never truly get the measure of this man; he skulks between bigger personalities and hides from his past with delusions of money-driven grandeur. His relationship with Ritter is perhaps the only time we come close to seeing what he truly is. The danger of having such an ambiguous main character is that he does get a little lost amongst the set pieces, the richness of the plot, and the other more outwardly compelling characters.

Although Bradley Cooper gives a solid performance he is overshadowed by the quirkier bit parts, including an intensely mustachioed Willem Dafoe at his most charismatic playing the owner of the carnival. Credit must also be given to Rooney Mara for carrying the heart and sensitivity of the movie, she is perhaps the antithesis of Cooper’s character, and we feel for her the most as the story descends into nightmarish chaos. As a femme fatale superfan -I love the trope and won’t hear a word against it- I enjoyed Cate Blanchett’s deep-voiced mind games. However, I do think that her motivation is a little weak and I would’ve loved for us to have been able to delve a little more into her past to give her character an extra layer of intrigue.

Mr del Toro rarely misses, and this is definitely one to catch if you’re a lover of twisty psychological thrillers with lashings of moral ambiguity. Have I tempted you into a stroll down Nightmare Alley? Good, that’ll be my own powers of clairvoyance…

Are you a Guillermo del Toro fan? What did you think of Nightmare Alley? Let us know in the comments!

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