Noir “Nightmare Alley” boasts a packed cast and stunning visuals.

“Is he man or beast?” barks Willem Dafoe’s Clem, the man who runs the oddities exhibit at a carnival, enticing people to look down upon an enclosure where a figure is hidden. These people have come to see something horrendous and terrifying from a safe distance, willing to plop down an extra bit of change in order to see something that’ll make their blood run cold yet make them feel all the more secure about their own lives. A bit of moral superiority disguised as entertainment. This question, shouted by Clem, looms over the entirety of co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s (The Shape of Water) adaptation of the 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel Nightmare Alley. This is the second adaptation of the tale, the first released in 1947 from director Edmund Goulding, and one which hews a little more closely to the source material. In 150 minutes, del Toro beckons you to go on a journey of the soul wherein you’ll decide for yourself, amid the successes and failures brought upon by hubris, if the determined Stan (Bradley Cooper) is either man or beast. Unsurprisingly, del Toro turns the mirror on the audience, asking them the same.

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Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

Stan Carlisle accidentally finds himself at the end of a bus line, jostled awake by the driver’s call, unloaded where a carnival is set up. With nothing else to do, Stan wanders the grounds, filled with shock and awe at everything he sees. When a wrong step places him in the path of Bruno (Ron Perlman), the strong man, rather than being thrown out, he’s offered a temporary job. This job leads to another and another, until Stan is a regular fixture, making his own suggestions and learning the trade. Thinking he can take what he’s learned to create his own show, he convinces fellow carnie Molly (Rooney Mara) to go with him. From the moment they leave the fairgrounds, ambition guides Stan straight toward a terrible destiny.

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L-R: Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle and Rooney Mara as Molly in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

To call del Toro’s Nightmare Alley a slow-burn is putting it lightly. Compared to the original’s runtime, there’s an additional 39 minutes which could easily be due to a mixture of additional narrative footage and lengthier credits. Though I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1947 adaptation, with research, one can tell that del Toro’s approach not only follows the novel a little more closely, but embellishes in areas that might enhance the emotional or moral center of the tale. Stan is given a few more layers, yet not with enough specificity so that we, the audience, can get a foothold on his motivations or, in some cases, truly know his choices. This creates a sense of ambiguity about Stan which Cooper conveys beautifully, especially in the second half of the film when Stan meets Cate Blanchett’s femme fatale Dr. Lilith Ritter. With Molly and the carnival, there’s a sense of wonder and amazement rather than the expected outcast life. Granted, no one wants to be the geek, the one who wonders if he’s man or beast, but, outside of that, del Toro’s interpretation is one of community and understanding the balance between entertainment and malicious intent. Once the second half starts, there’s less magic and more malice, dripping around the edges, whispering decadent delights and carnal truths, as the noir of it all bares its teeth. This is where the real test for Stan begins and everything picks up steam until it lands with a gut-punch. The odd thing is how expertly it lands despite being entirely telegraphed. You know it’s coming from far off. You know exactly where the narrative’s headed and, yet, we cannot help but be taken in entirely, thanks to del Toro’s patience and Cooper’s undeniable talent.

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Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

Even with time to ruminate on it, it’s difficult to tell if the issue with Nightmare Alley is that the narrative is too long in the teeth (thereby establishing too great a foreshadowing) or if it’s del Toro’s immaculate recreation of a classic Hollywood noir (a large A-list cast, beautiful production design, and detailed purposeful costuming). de Toro spins an impressive yarn that looks incredible and offers quite a few moments where his cast just shines (Cooper vs. Blanchett, Dafoe hamming it up, Richard Jenkins more menacing than ever), all of which we’ve come to expect from a creative who’s the author of such wondrous films as The Shape of Water (2017) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), films which blend the real with the imaginary to devastating ends. Here, though, the script by del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan moves so slowly that, rather than feel immersed in the world, caught up in the illusion crafted by the technical portions, one can’t help but feel like they’re observing something rather than connecting to it. Quite frankly, this may be what makes Nightmare Alley so difficult to nail down because it’s so hard to lose yourself in. Is this on purpose so that we, the audience, better examine the questions del Toro poses or entirely an accident? This aspect may be far more personal, but the presentation doesn’t make the film the kind one wants to revisit, even if just for the sideshow.

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L-R: Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter and Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

Ultimately, Nightmare Alley doesn’t feel like a del Toro film outside of the naturalism which runs throughout. This is a real world with consequences. The story began long before we paid our ticket to enter and it continues well after we’ve left with our fill of sights and sounds. Sure, there are plenty of familiar faces from his prior works, but there appears to be no intention for adapting this story beyond being able to tell a classic tale. That’s certainly reason enough for any creative to develop the projects they want to bring to fruition, but the moral ambiguity of noir only really resonates if there’s intention in the tale. We may never really know if we’re man or beast until the time comes where we must answer, forced out of our comforts and into an uncaring world. There was intention with the 1946 novel and, one must suppose, intention in adapting it for cinemas in 1947. But why now and why this story? The script so clearly softens aspects from the original material to make Stan far more likable and well-intentioned despite the grey from which he emerges at the start. This does wonderfully flesh-out the carnival folk, making them more weighted and life-like versus mere set dressing. All of which matters when the axe falls in the story. But it doesn’t really answer the question it poses and it’s difficult to say, more than any noir, if it even wants to. Will the ending surprise? No. Will it still hurt? Yes. But will you care past the point of having paid for the ticket? Therein lies the rub.

In theaters December 17th, 2021.

For more information, head to Searchlight Pictures’s official Nightmare Alley website.

Final Score: 3 out of 5.

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Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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2 replies

  1. You’ve never seen the original film with Tyrone Power? Stopped reading your review right there. What are you, like 25 years old?

    • I am not, but it’s on the list of films I’ve missed that I plan to watch. I talked about this on a recent episode of the film podcast I co-host: I didn’t realize del Toro was readapting the novel. While I can appreciate your not finishing the review because you felt I lacked credibility, a review of one film really shouldn’t be compared to another. All this does is evaluate the film in front of me.

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