Nightmare Alley (2021)
Nightmare Alley (2021)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 30 min.

Release Date: December 17th, 2021 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Guillermo del Toro Actors: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany




man with a shady past, Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) boards a train to nowhere, which eventually dumps him off at a small station bordering a carnival. Set in the late ‘30s, barker Clem (Willem Dafoe) beckons onlookers to the attraction of a geek, whose animalistic behaviors border on the inhuman – particularly as he bites the heads off live chickens in front of horrified crowds. Stan is shocked, but he’s also intrigued, lending to a stint working with the traveling group as they pack up their tents and wares to join another site not too far away.

From the funhouse sets to the costumes to the character designs, everything here is visually more elaborate and grotesque than in the original 1947 picture (also based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham), making use of advancements in technology and makeup effects to highlight gore and graphic material. This is to be expected from writer/director Guillermo del Toro, whose previous productions have notably merged the macabre with the fantastic. Yet the auteur’s creative flair ends there with this effort; the story itself is beat for beat about the same as the first theatrical iteration (retaining the time period allows for interesting props but limits the possibilities for wild modifications), altering only a minimal sum of elements – solely for the sake of communicating aged ideas to modern audiences (but nonetheless taking the opportunity to amplify cursing and violence, which inadvertently takes away from the horror aspects, since the gruesome imagery on display can’t live up to the provocations of the mind).

Stan soon finds himself at home with the carnival’s menagerie of freaks and exotic performers, including psychic Zeena (Toni Collette) and her besotted husband Pete (David Strathairn), strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) and his ward Molly (Rooney Mara), and diminutive wrestler Major Mosquito (Mark Povinelli). At times, Stan even empathizes with the bedraggled geek, who is so drug-addled that he’s confined to a cage most of the time. Eventually, after learning the ropes and perfecting routines, Stan and Molly will head out on their own to try their hand at a mentalist act that just might bring them fame and fortune.

“People are desperate to tell you who they are.” Ultimately, this tale is a morality play, chronicling the rise and fall of a hustler who wishes to take advantage of the many gullible folks who simply want to believe in something. Along the way, Stan’s desire to acquire greater and greater success puts him in the path of a blatantly suspicious psychologist (Cate Blanchett) and powerful influencers, each presenting the potential for sizable wealth and significant danger. With the film’s overlong runtime, the characters receive detailed backstories (though they don’t offer up meaningful revelations) and more time to establish motives and relationships. But it’s still slow-moving and plodding, giving away too much with its unnecessary explanations into the inner-workings of the geek show (an outdated yet integral piece of the plot) and wasting moments on nightmarish flashbacks and unfitting scene transitions. Character development and specific interactions are deeper and darker, yet they once again flesh out generally disagreeable personas and situations; it’s difficult to care about anyone in “Nightmare Alley” when they’re virtually all manipulative users and largely irredeemable antiheroes.

Sadly, the setting is too straightforward and grounded for del Toro to infuse much of his signature styling – though the carnival sets and the foggy atmosphere are appropriate milieus for the foreboding activities of deception and destruction. Outside of a couple of shots of bloodshed, “Nightmare Alley” isn’t readily identifiable to the director. And with such minor adjustments to the original premise, there aren’t that many surprises to be had (even acknowledging that most audiences will be completely unfamiliar with the Tyrone-Power-headliner from the ‘40s, which itself was somewhat predictable), resulting in a comparably unsatisfying, bleak tragedy that, while effectively shedding itself of the film noir classification, isn’t a work of much potency beyond the unsettling finale.

– Mike Massie

  • 3/10