Nightmare Alley

Written by Taylor Baker


Four years on from Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar winning film The Shape of Water he returns to the big screen with Nightmare Alley. A cautionary tale built around Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle, who plays a carny that wants more out of life. After setting fire to a house on a hill Stan begins his journey. Worming his way down the literal and metaphorical road until he happens upon a carnival. There he happens into a tent to watch a creature called a Geek bite off a chicken’s head. In what may very well be a partial ode to Freaks, not just an homage to the novel it is based on and the film it shares the title of, he takes up a job offer from Willem Dafoe’s Clem Hoately.

In these early portions of the film with the carnival as the backdrop, Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Lausten are at their collective best, using the frame to capture the oddities, eccentricities, and characters that make up the community and place. As the film builds there begins to be a listless unmoored sense of camera movement where jump cuts don’t work in concert, fades don’t sync symmetrically, and a lack of cohesive visual control becomes apparent. It’s as if the decisions on how to compose and block the shots were made without considering how to build out from the last sequence. Which leads to a disjointed focus that keeps the viewer from staying buried in the narrative.

Stan goes on to strike up a relationship with Toni Collette’s Zeena, a tarot reader who resides at a permanent carnival location that his troupe arrives at. He learns tools of the trade from her and her partner Pete Krumbein played by David Strathairn. Ron Perlman, the aforementioned Willem Dafoe, and Mark Povinelli round out the rest of the major supporting cast at the carnival with the real focus of Stan being on Rooney Mara’s Molly whom he becomes besotted with. As he looks for a way out to do something more exciting and take Molly away an opportunity arises.

They take advantage of their chance and head out of the carnival they call home in a truck and head to the city where years go by as they work a mentalist act. Molly begins to miss her life from before as she becomes frustrated with Stan and his pursuit of more and ever-present dissatisfaction with the present circumstances. At this point in time, Cate Blanchett’s psychiatrist Lilith comes into the film as she’s attending the performance on behalf of a benefactor. After a particularly engaging sequence performed excellently by Cooper, they begin a sort of business relationship.

From there on out the stakes of the film are made clear, and we get fantastic though brief sequences with the likes of Mary Steenbergen, Richard Jenkins, and Holt McCallany. It has one of if not the most memorable finale sequence of the year. Nightmare Alley is Del Toro’s most tame film to date. That rings as an homage more than a distinctive work, but nonetheless a film that stands shoulder to shoulder among most of the year’s crop from popular filmmakers.

Nightmare Alley Trailer

Nightmare Alley will be available in wide theatrical release starting December 17th.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

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