Within Guillermo del Toro’s ambitious, eccentric Nightmare Alley, two very different movies form an awkward coexistence: For much of its first half, we see the dark, sprawling topography of a Tim Burton fever dream, set during the Great Depression, where carny lifers try and carve out some meager slice of happiness. Gradually, that gnarled experience gives way to a more conventional film noir, featuring a sultry femme fatale, wealthy victims, and a mysterious grifter who is either a few moves ahead or behind everyone around him. A good deal of your enjoyment of Nightmare Alley will probably hinge on your opinion of these two halves of its narrative whole. Strike up a preference for one, and you’ll likely be disappointed by the other. As for me, I couldn’t decide whether or not this film is as good as it thinks it is.
Based on the acclaimed novel by William Lindsay Gresham (which also spawned a 1947 adaptation), Alley centers on Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a young man with a violent past. On the run, Carlisle finds work with a traveling carnival, headed by Clem (Willem Dafoe). Although he starts with manual labor, Carlisle becomes intrigued by a pseudo-psychic (Toni Collette) and her husband (David Strathairn), who convince patrons they can read minds and commune with the dead. Carlisle decides to learn the secrets of their con game and take this schtick on the road with Molly (Rooney Mara), a talented, beautiful young carny.
That’s about as many pieces of this puzzle as I want to show you. I will say del Toro builds an intriguing mystery, where Carlisle falls under the spell of Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a clever psychologist who spots a lucrative opportunity for his skills as a mentalist. She puts him with a few well-heeled marks and dispenses a little insider info, although Ritter might have a few hidden agendas of her own. This is where del Toro cooks up his richest surprises, and I’ll let you discover them for yourself.
This is also where the film finds peak form. Cooper and Blanchett build potent chemistry with each other, and their scenes spark with classic noir energy. This simmering sexual tension and quiet hostility add layers of intrigue to Alley, so much so that the dynamic between Cooper and Mara almost pales by comparison. For a film that clocks in at a punishing 150 minutes, del Toro does well to save the most compelling aspects for the second half.
The first 1.5 acts of Alley are a different story. It’s here del Toro leans into his macabre tendencies, featuring carny geeks feasting on live chickens and demon fetuses in jars. While all these grim touches certainly supply the film with its intentionally dour aesthetic, they also add bulk to an overlong runtime and render its first half into a bit of a slog.
Alley derives much of its momentum from an incredible all-star cast. Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) has long established himself as one the most imaginative directors in the world, and it’s clear the top actors want to work with him. Cooper, playing Carlisle as an erratic combination of guilt and belligerence, gives the film its emotional edge. Blanchett’s Dr. Ritter follows the classic template of noir fatales; she operates with the cool confidence of knowing she’s a foot smarter than Carlisle, or any other man snarled in her web. Mara brings a sturdy sadness to Molly, who might be Carlisle’s longest-suffering victim. As for Dafoe, he delivers his usual brand of jittery weirdness.
Another plus for Alley can be found in its production values. This film will compete with Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho for Most Beautiful Film of 2021. Del Toro lovingly recreates pre-war America, down to every hood ornament and stitch of clothing. Dan Laustsen, del Toro’s longtime cinematographer, brilliantly captures the film’s many atmospheres, whether it’s the dishwatery bleakness of the carny world, or the sparkling, wintry opulence of Lilith’s penthouse office. Throw in Shane Vieau’s set decoration, Brandt Gordon’s art design, Tamara Deverell’s production design, and Nathan Johnson’s music, and you’ve already got enough to justify streaming this movie.
Still, I’m not sure where that leaves Alley as a cohesive work. I admired all the pieces, but couldn’t quite make sense of the final image. The second half–the ending in particular–adds a dark poetry to the entire film that certainly fits the story. I can readily say I admired Nightmare Alley, but actual love was harder to come by. That makes this a pretty good film, although it never finds the greatness for which it so desperately strives.
150 min. R. HBOMax.