'Nightmare Alley': Guillermo Del Toro Embraces the Darkness in Immersive, Stylish Thriller
Updated: Jan 23
If you were asked to come up with one defining trademark seen throughout all of Guillermo Del Toro's work, your mind might immediately go to the monsters and creatures that appear in most of his films. Del Toro has made a name for himself making movies that feature monsters, and in each of them, we reach a point where he illustrates that humans are the most monstrous beasts of all. This particular concept might be the most prevailing in each of his films, and it takes center stage with Nightmare Alley, a film that features none of the elaborate creatures of his previous films, but still has some unsavory characters lurking all through it.
Early in the film, we see Willem Dafoe's character, Clem, introducing a circus geek to a crowd. During the speech, he repeatedly asks the question: "Is he man or beast?" Given the context of the scene, and that this line was all over the trailers and posters for the film, it's clear that this is the question Del Toro wants the audience to be pondering over the runtime. I couldn't stop asking myself variations of this question throughout the film, due to the ambiguity surrounding our protagonist, Stanton Carlisle (played incredibly by Bradley Cooper). We know from the get-go that he isn't a good person, but we get conflicting ideas of who he is and what the intentions behind his actions are. This back and forth dominates most of the movie, and takes the audience on a journey with Carlisle as he tries to make something of himself.
I went into this film knowing next to nothing about it. I haven't read the original novel by William Lindsay Gresham, nor have I seen the 1947 film adaptation of it. I truly didn't know what to expect outside of the dark nature of the film, and its carnival setting. As a result, I was blindsided many times throughout the film. It's not overly twisty, but it took me by surprise with some of the turns it takes. Guillermo Del Toro almost takes on the role of a carny with his direction, showing the audience something both amazing and frightening, while also using some tricks to shock and surprise them. There is a level of manipulation to his direction, but it's practically needed in order to pull of what he is setting out to accomplish. It's not quite as showy as you would expect, but it is thrilling and intriguing all the same.
The world that Del Toro and company create is immersive and stunningly crafted. It manages to feel indicative of the time period, while also feeling unique to the film itself. The production design is especially incredible, especially in the back half of the film, as we see some truly beautiful sets. That's not to discount the carnival sets, as they are also eye catching, and quite detailed. On top of this, Dan Laustsen's camerawork is excellent, as it has such a distinct and striking visual palette. I was particularly drawn in by his use of shadows, which is a highly effective motif that he employs nicely. In conjunction, these two elements portray the seedy world of the carnival, as well as the glamorous world of high society in an engaging and enveloping way that transported me to these environments, and are a large part of what drew me into the film as a whole.
What struck me about the film almost as much as the visual elements is its immensely talented cast. This almost goes without saying when you look at who all is top-billed, but I was still highly impressed by just about everyone in the film. Bradley Cooper gives one of the best performances of his career, and it requires him to bring some control and subtlety to the role. He absolutely nails this, and uses his charm to deflect some of the more deceptive aspects of his character. That question of "Man or Beast?" looms large over him, and he truly has the audience guessing what his true nature is. This makes him all the more magnetic, and it is one of the most fascinating characters he has ever played.
While Cooper is the main attraction, for lack of a better term, the rest of the cast shines just as bright as he does. Rooney Mara is excellent, and has such good chemistry with Cooper. Her role could easily have been a thankless one, but she elevates it to give her character a sense of agency and allows the audience to empathize with her. Cate Blanchett is also fantastic, and is almost as ambiguous as Cooper's character here. Much of the latter half of the film deals with the power dynamic between the two, and the scenes between them are electric. Blanchett more than holds her own with Cooper, and draws the audience in from the moment she first appears. I was also highly impressed by Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, and David Strathairn, all of whom aren't in all that much of the film, but they are all giving such full and engaging performances that still managed to leave a huge impact on me.
My biggest complaint is that the film does feel a bit too long. It runs at approximately two and a half hours, and it could have easily trimmed it down a smidge. The second act is mostly to blame here, as it drags here and there. This is a shame, because the first and third acts are so solid that it makes those moments stand out even more. I can kind of see why the film takes its time, but it does slow its momentum quite a bit. I also felt that some of the characters weren't as fully developed, despite the actors playing them giving it their all. It helps that these are wickedly talented actors, as they make up for the areas where the script lacks depth for some of the characters.
Perhaps it's because I wasn't 100 percent sure what to expect, but I was quite floored by Nightmare Alley. I wouldn't say this is Guillermo Del Toro's best work, but it is an interesting exercise in what he can do when he takes one of his biggest trademarks out of the equation. I wouldn't have ever expected him to make a noir film, but he pulls it off pretty well, in my opinion. This is still very much in line with his other work, but it is more grounded than something like Pan's Labyrinth or The Shape of Water. It is clear why he wanted to take this project on, as it deals with some of the same themes we see across his work. He embraces the darkness of the source material, and challenges the audience all throughout the film, before it reaches its excellent, almost cathartic conclusion. It is the type of film that may alienate some, but those willing to dig in and stick with it just might be as invested as I was, and find themselves drawn into the immersive world that Del Toro and company have created.