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Film Review: “Nightmare Alley” Is a Narrative Nightmare

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 16th, 2021

Film poster: “Nightmare Alley”

Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro, 2021) 1 out of 4 stars.

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), while a master visualist, often has a tendency to focus more on the design of his frames than the structure of his script. In Nightmare Alley, an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s eponymous 1946 novel—which was previously brought to the screen in a 1947 film starring Tyrone PowerTyrone Power—he loses the story thread early on and never quite finds the right way to stitch a coherent narrative pattern after that. The movie looks great, highly stylized in all the ways we have come to expect from del Toro, but evocative images untethered from significant meaning lose power as soon as they vanish into the darkness. Some nightmares stick with us forever; not this one. 

To be fair, I was never a particular fan of the original film and have not read the source material. The trajectory of the protagonist’s defeat is telegraphed right from the start, so the surprises are minimal and the interest weak. A parable of greed and hubris, Nightmare Alley wears its intentions very much on its gaudy, noirish sleeve, and no amount of high-profile talent can improve the fabric and give it greater substance. What results is a snooze of a tale, simultaneously byzantine and simplistic.

l-r: Willem Dafoe and Bradley Cooper in NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved

Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) stars as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a Depression-era drifter who finds his way into a carnival troupe run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe, Motherless Brooklyn). There, he meets two different woman, one who desires him—Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette, Dream Horse)—and one whom he desires: the young ingénue Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara, A Ghost Story). Early on, Stan proves his worth to Clem by helping him capture the escaped “geek,” an alcoholic groomed by Clem into someone who eats live chickens in front of an audience. Since Stan is a teetotaler, Clem has no problem explaining to him how a geek is made by manipulating his addiction. If it seems like heavy foreshadowing, well, watch on.

Stan has demons of his own, even without the sauce, as we glean from an opening that shows him burning down a house within which may or may not have been a human being, dead or alive. But once among the carnies, he seems fairly laid-back, helping Zeena with her act and learning tricks to fake clairvoyance from her ailing husband, Pete (David Strathairn, Fast Color), himself an alcoholic. Eventually, after circumstances both tragic and triumphant, Stan decides to strike out on his own, now confident in his abilities as a seer, and takes Molly with him.

l-r: Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved

Two years later, we find the couple with a successful act in the big city. All is good, until Stan takes things too far, his downfall signaled the moment he takes a first drink in the company of a new femme, very much fatale, in the form of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, Thor: Ragnarok). Yes, it really is a great cast, and I’m leaving plenty of other folks off the list. But no matter. Once Dr. Ritter arrives, what was barely held together by silly strong now explodes. What follows is much ado about nothing much.

It’s a shame, as clearly a lot of effort went into shaping this mess. But the climactic crash of our antihero is the opposite of unexpected. Worse, if we dare invest emotions in the shenanigans of the final act, they prove peripheral to Stan’s toppling. Adding insult to cinematic injury, the denouement brings us exactly where we thought it would. Like many a bad dream, this nightmare won’t release us from its grasp (the movie is so long!) until we scream for mercy. Fortunately, once over, we move on, hardly rested, but also, as it turns out, completely unaffected.

l-r: Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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