Nightmare Alley Review

Ambition and nightmares fuse rather nicely throughout Nightmare Alley, a modern spin on the defiant, dormant neo-noir genre. Every so often, a creative will come along and be so sure of their abilities in reviving it. Naturally, whether the work they offer is great or godless, they are met with stirring reviews and a box office bomb. Nightmare Alley is on that course regardless and probably knew it. To know that and persevere is bold and inevitable because Nightmare Alley is a certainly grand film and far closer to the top of the Best Picture pile than any of the others to be given such a nod. It is at least filled with worldbuilding and experimentation, which is no surprise since Guillermo Del Toro helms this delightfully twisted feature.

Such an ensemble can provide only so much detail to the strange fascinations on display in this darkly inspired funhouse story. Willem Dafoe and Bradley Cooper are just a sprinkling of the great performers on display here. But Nightmare Alley is far more than just its cast, which includes Toni Collette and Rooney Mara in some fantastic work, but Del Toro’s vision comes to life with the dark and inscrutable tones he has always offered. Whether it is Hellboy or Pan’s Labyrinth, his work is always sickening somewhere deep down. Dafoe is at the helm of much of that disgust and Del Toro’s desire to show as much as he can of this diminished and strange world. Cooper is an excellent draw for that world, the pioneer that guides an audience through fantasy elements and disgusting designs.

They are the moments that truly stand out, from the introduction of pickled mutants and strange carnival attractions to the despondent similarity between a rundown home and a carnival of horrors. But leading man Cooper and his portrayal of Stanton Carlisle have strung along rather than formed as an entertaining protagonist. He is there to watch on in horror alongside the audience and while he may be the only guide for those sins and strange terrors that see women with the body of spiders or electric trickery, he is not much of a mainstay. He ogles the exhibits and wanders around the crowd, smoking cigarettes and tipping his fedora like a modern Humphrey Bogart, but without the charm or guidance, a leading man should have. He is a catalyst for other problems rather than his own explorative piece, but every story needs a guide. Cooper does well to hold the ensemble together.

Nightmare Alley is a strong feature. It is an arguable contender for the top spot on any Del Toro ranking, not because it strikes up the creativity found in The Shape of Water or the dark tones of Pan’s Labyrinth, but because it is a blur of the two. That momentum, unique to each feature, is blended well throughout Nightmare Alley. What Cooper’s role is within Nightmare Alley is uncoordinated but what he manages throughout is a dependency unlike any other. Holding his own and coordinating some thoroughly entertaining character studies and moody tones, this feature has all the right charms but not in the right places.

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