Nightmare Alley (2021)

nightmare alley poster 2021 movie
7.0 Overall Score
Story: 6/10
Acting: 8/10
Visuals: 9/10

Good looking, good cast

Story needed to be edited down and still could have captured the same themes

Movie Info

Movie Name:  Nightmare Alley

Studio:  Fox Searchlight Pictures/Double Dare You (DDY)/Ontario Creates

Genre(s):  Drama/Mystery/Suspense

Release Date(s):  December 1, 2021 (Premiere)/December 17, 2021 (US)

MPAA Rating:  R

nightmare alley bradley cooper mystic costume

I’m predicting that I’m going to be pretty screwed soon….

Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a man with a past who finds a new home and skill with a sideshow circus.  Learning how to “read” people, Carlisle and his new girlfriend Molly (Rooney Mara) set themselves up as a solo act, but Stanton quickly finds an ally in psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett).  Ritter has insight on many powerful people and helping Stanton with confidential information means taking Stanton’s skill to new levels and incomes…but everyone has a game and the cards might not turn up right for Stanton.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Nightmare Alley is a noir crime thriller.  The film is an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel which was previously turned into a movie in 1947 starring Tyrone Powers.  A black-and-white version of the film called Nightmare Alley:  Vision in Darkness and Light was released in 2022.  The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Cinematography.

nightmare alley geek show chicken

Bring out the Geek!

In general, Guillermo del Toro has a real look and style.  A neo-noir thriller seems like a perfect fit for him.  I had not read the source material or seen the previous film when I saw Nightmare Alley…and felt that del Toro made some missteps in pacing.  Due to aspects of the plot, a ******spoiler alert****** is in effect for the rest of the review.

While the story is compelling, the film is thirty to forty minutes too long.  Much of the first hour is establishment, but in many ways insignificant to the plot in regards to the amount of time spent on it.  Visually, the carnival and its inhabitants are the most compelling and fun part of Nightmare Alley, but the meat of the movie occurs when Stanton meets Dr. Ritter.  The cat-and-mouse game is a pretty obvious one where you can see the femme fatale Ritter is setting up Stanton for a big fall, but it is a solid set-up…but it leads to an obvious outcome of Stanton becoming a geek like the geek he pitied in the beginning of the film.  For this reason, I understand the purpose of the long, slow start, but the movie would have been more compelling trimmed down.

nightmare alley bradley cooper cate blanchett

She’s in your head now…

The cast cannot be faulted.  Bradley Cooper starts out largely silent but becomes more and more vocal as he finds his place.  Rooney Mara can see what is happening with Stanton’s character, but does go along with him despite it (she also remains a weirdly loose end for ruining Ritter’s plans).  Cate Blanchett plays the largely evil Dr. Ritter with glee, and it feels familiar to many of her other roles.  The people of the circus played by Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, David Strathaim, and Toni Collette feel underused, but the film continues to bring in more and more names like Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, and Tim Blake Nelson in small roles.  A fun, small cameo in the movie is Romina Power who is the daughter of the 1947 adaptation star Tyrone Power.

nightmare alley rooney mara ghost ending

We’ve enter the world of Crimson Peak…I mean Nightmare Alley

Visually, Guillermo del Toro gets it.  As mentioned above, the circus is the most fun when it comes to visuals, but the whole film gets that light-dark feel that has a real coldness to it (even when it isn’t cold).  The characters all live in shadows.

Nightmare Alley feels a bit unfortunate and underwelming.  It performed poorly at the box office largely due to COVID and changing viewing habits, but it also just isn’t as strong as it could be.  The movie has some great moments and a clever piece of source material, but it just feels bulky and sluggish in its unveiling.  I hope that Guillermo del Toro doesn’t take it to heart that the film kind of floundered and wows us with his next film.

Related Links:

Nightmare Alley (1947)

The 94th Academy Award Nominations

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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