Some storytelling themes are so universal in their relevance to the human condition that they appear time and time again in works of fiction. One of these is the tale of the ambitious upstart who chases their potential before discovering they’re in over the head. You can see this template used in ancient Greece with the story of Icarus and his wax wings and all the way up to modern cinematic storytelling, such as in Scarface. Guillermo Del Toro’s new movie, Nightmare Alley (based on the book of the same name), is yet another story that relates to this timeless motif.
Set in the United States in the years leading up to American involvement in World War II, Nightmare Alley is the story of a wayward soul named Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) who chases wealth and his version of the American dream. Emerging from a shadowy past, Carlisle finds himself hired as a helping hand with a traveling carnival in the American Vaudevillian tradition.
Carlisle comes to learn a lot about theatricality and showmanship, particularly in mentalism, by being surrounded by so many different acts day after day. After winning the love of a promising young performer, Molly (Rooney Mara), and avoiding a beating at the hands of a strongman named Bruno (Ron Pearlman), Carlisle leaves the carnival with his new lover in pursuit of more promising and lucrative horizons.
After some time, Carlisle and Molly build a successful mentalism act using skills they learned at the carnival. Soon, he is performing his act multiple times each day in a city theater. Despite the success he and Molly have experienced, Carlisle is not satisfied and continues to pursue increasingly bold heights.
As he continues to tempt fate, Molly begins to wonder if she really knows this man she has tied her own fortunes to. Carlisle himself seems to be drawn further into his own persona, perhaps coming to believe that he really does have supernatural powers and forgetting that the whole thing is merely an act to create an illusion for an audience.
The first immediately striking thing about Nightmare Alley is the incredible visual atmosphere that it creates. Everything from the costumes to the architecture of the structures embodies the era of the film, immediately immersing the viewer in the America of the early 20th century. This is especially true when it comes to the mentalism and carnival acts that are performed in the film, which are clearly the result of research into their real-life historical counterparts. Peppered throughout this carefully sculpted period piece are Del Toro’s signature creepy visual effects. This is a thoroughly impressive film to look at.
Nightmare Alley’s simple premise belies a film that has a lot of extra narrative content, often to its own detriment. The first quarter of the movie is spent fleshing out characters and creating an atmosphere that all become basically irrelevant once Carlisle and Molly leave the carnival behind. These scenes do set the stage for the rest of the movie, but that could have been accomplished with far less screen time. This is also true on a finer-grained level where particular events will take an unnecessarily long time to transpire. Towards the end of the movie, the viewer will spend roughly two minutes watching Carlisle slowly fold up a piece of newspaper and use it to patch a hole in his shoe. This is a dubious film-making decision, to say the least.
Furthermore, it’s not clear that a fairly straightforward story about a conman is relatable or desirable at all in the current social climate. There isn’t much in the way of deep themes going on here outside of the timeless and often-repeated one outlined above. The book this film is based on was published in 1946 and highlighted the very real abuse and skullduggery happening in the entertainment business in the final years before television completely changed the industry. Del Toro is clearly trying to use this example from history to frame a commentary on the modern film and television industries, but that is a high niche theme that will not work for everyone.
Another issue I had with Nightmare Alley is the lack of likable or respectable characters. Carlisle is a bonafide scoundrel who never makes an excuse for himself but he also lacks the bravado or admirable qualities that would qualify him as a good anti-hero. On the other hand, Molly is mostly a doe-eyed tagalong who undergoes only the most simplistic character development over the course of the film. Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara do bring strong acting performances to these roles, but it isn’t enough to cause the viewer to really emotionally invest in these characters. Beyond these two there is a whole ensemble cast of characters who are almost all well-performed by talented actors, but their presence in the film is always transient or short-lived.
A final factor worth mentioning is the ending of the movie, which has gotten a lot of hype in the marketing materials for Nightmare Alley. Personally, I did not like it at all. It wasn’t profound or unexpected and felt quite forced. Instead of tying up loose ends, the final minutes of the film are groan-inducing and give the impression that all the events of the plot were contrived to make this one aha moment that feels far from satisfying itself.
Nightmare Alley is not a particularly entertaining film. It employs tired themes with unlikable characters and fails to build any real suspense most of the time. It has nothing especially insightful or thought-provoking to offer, either. That being said, there is truly impressive production value here and Bradley Cooper delivers a predictably spectacular performance as a conman with no principles. Wait to stream it rather than seeing it in theaters.
About NIGHTMARE ALLEY
Synopsis: An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette
Runtime: 2 Hours, 30 Minutes
Releases: December 17, 2021 (USA)
My name is Kevin and I have been writing about movies with GNN since January 2020. Some of my favorite films are Inception, Django Unchained, American Hustle, and Gladiator. I graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University in May 2018. I am currently self-employed in e-commerce and live in Tempe, Arizona. In my free time, you can probably find me slinging spells in Magic: the Gathering or dusting off a retro video game console (Super Nintendo is my favorite).