Nightmare Alley – A Movie Review

Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors. I try to make it to the theater for any of his work. Unfortunately, Nightmare Alley was in and out of the theaters so quickly that I couldn’t free up the two and a half hours necessary to take it in. Luckily, it’s already available on HBO Max.

Here’s what I’d like to say up front: I loved the acting, the costumes, the cinematography, and even the story itself. Conversely–I didn’t care for the movie as a whole.

Let me quickly summarize this 1947 remake … without spoilers, of course. Set in the days before WWII, Nightmare Alley follows Cooper’s character, Stanton Carlisle, as he finds himself adrift and working at a carnival after Clem Hoatley, played by William Dafoe, offers him a position. He falls in with Toni Collette’s character, Zeena the Seer, whose husband teaches Stan little tips and tricks which make people think he can read their minds or communicate with those beyond. Stan develops a relationship with Molly Cahill, played by Rooney Mara, who can seemingly endure electrical jolts. Among many duties, Stan finds himself helping Clem with the carnival “geek,” a nomad they drug, treat like an animal, and then present as a freakshow. Stan hones his mentalist skills to such a degree that he leaves the carnival with Molly in tow and starts his own act. Stan achieves success he never expected, but soon crosses paths with Dr. Lilith Ritter, played by Cate Blanchett. At that point a series of selfish deceits, deceptions, and cons take place, which ultimately seem to convey the message that no one can escape their destiny.

This is a beautiful movie to behold. The texture is so rich, you feel as though you can reach out and touch what you’re seeing on screen. Furthermore, the costumes are gorgeous, the scenery is exquisite, and the cinematography is fantastic. As you can tell by the names above, the acting is topnotch. (There are even more excellent actors in this movie that I didn’t mention.) The story itself is really, really good and the ending, in my mind, is perfect.

Yet, even with all of that being said, I can’t say I like the movie as a whole. In the end, I think it was simply too long with too slow of a pace. Though I loved the conclusion it reached, I think it unnecessarily took too much time getting there.

Though exciting at times, I wouldn’t call it a thriller. Though creepy, it’s not a supernatural tale. Though mysterious, I wouldn’t even call it a mystery. Though accurate to it’s era, it’s not a traditional period piece. In the end, I find the film to be an exceptional example of irony. However, I’m not sure that’s what they primarily intended.

Of course, I encourage you to draw your own conclusions. There’s a lot to like about Nightmare Alley, and you may appreciate the films as whole more than I did.

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