Nightmare Alley: A Noir Thriller

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Guillermo del Toro shies away from the supernatural to present an updated take on Nightmare Alley in this noir thriller.

The gist of the film is that Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) befriends a clairvoyant Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette) and her mentalist husband, Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn), at a traveling carnival. Stanton takes advantage of what he learns to break free of the carnival alongside Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara). Before you know it, he’s conning the 1940s New York Society elite. But at some point, Stanton takes things a bit too far while conning a tycoon, Ezra Grindle (an unrecognizable Richard Jenkins), with the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett).

Stanton really digs himself quite the hole. He has a solid relationship with Molly but the more he cons, the more you sense things are falling apart. Can they work things out or will Ezra Grindle ultimately break them? You’ll just have to watch the film and find out. But I’ll just say this: unlikable characters make it really hard to root for them. Of course, it depends on the people they surround themselves with. In Stanton’s case, he take things way too far and there’s really no coming back from this point.

Nightmare Alley may be a humanized thriller but I’m not so sure that I’d put it in the top ten of the year. This isn’t to take anything away from the film but but it really comes down to personal tastes, too.  It’s funny though–this is the second remake in as many weeks from an Oscar-winning filmmaker? Do both films need remakes? This is the age old question. I don’t know. What I can tell you is that I am not familiar with the original film. There will be no comparing and contrasting on this end. The acting is stellar but one certainly expects this when you have an all-star cast of this nature!

I can definitely see what del Toro saw in William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. There’s certainly something to be said of the book’s themes on capitalism. I mean, all you have to do is look at Stanton’s meteoric rise and eventual fall. There’s a classic theme of greed at work. del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan also bring a trio of women to the film’s forefront and Stanton interacts with all of them. They also set the new adaptation in 1939 as the Great Depression is starting to come to an end.

Maybe it’s because I had an extremely long day when I saw the film but Nightmare Alley did feel a bit slow in the middle.  But again, I was having a long day on my end. Thankfully, this film is not extremely slow paced like a recently released overhyped film. In other news, Nightmare Alley is two and a half hours long and I didn’t go to the restroom at all during the run time.

Nightmare Alley features some strong visual elements and acting but it’s hard getting completely on board with an irredeemable lead in this tale of greed and capitalism.

DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro
SCREENWRITERS: Guillermo del Toro & Kim Morgan
CAST: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn

Searchlight Pictures releases Nightmare Alley in theaters on December 1, 2021.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.