REVIEW: Take a stroll in ‘Nightmare Alley’ for quality noir

A title like “Nightmare Alley” may inspire thoughts that this film is about fantastical monsters.

But director Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is about how ordinary men can be just as monstrous as fabled beasts.

Bradley Cooper stars as Stanton in the film, a man who’s clearly on the run from his past at the start of the movie. As the film takes place during the later years of the depression and Stanton needing work, he ends up taking an offer to work at a carnival.

There, he meets a husband and wife duo who have an act where they perform as a pair of psychics, although, their mind games are actually just coded words to make it appear that they have powers. Still, Stanton sees an opportunity for himself and decides he would like to do such an act, but his efforts to do so leads to dangers and conundrums.

Del Toro’s follow-up to “The Shape of Water” may not hit the same high marks as that Oscar-winning picture, but it’s still a top tier movie for 2021. This noir slowburn has a bountiful amount of suspense, intrigue and drama to grip an audience.

The film is told in two halves, and they compliment each other quite well for a compelling rise and fall type of story. The way they combine to form a whole makes for a memorable experience.

The first half is about opportunity and promises of something better on the horizon. At the same time, the opening half contains many warning signs of what could be in store for the characters.

The second half, meanwhile, tremendously builds off of the first, pushing the boundaries of what was originally set in the opening section. The second half also pays off many of the elements of the first, bringing the story full circle.

Courtesy Searchlight Pictures and TSG Entertainment.

It’s all paced out exceptionally well, keeping a viewer hooked as the story offers twists and turns while the themes of greed and human desires are looming.

The award caliber cast certainly enhances an already strong film, too. Bradley Cooper, for example, is fantastic, as he convincingly portrays a man of mystery in the opening scenes to a person being consumed by hubris later in the picture.

The best performer in the movie, though, is Cate Blanchett, whose character Stanton meets and becomes infatuated with. Blanchett is delightfully devilish in the movie, portraying an elegant, suave and calculating character rich with personality.

The supporting cast members excel, too. Willem Dafoe, for example, feels perfectly cast as an aging, wise carnival owner who can be both generous and cruel. Rooney Mara, meanwhile, is mesmerizing as Stanton’s love interest, Molly, a character who portrays a purity that acts as a contrast to the cynical nature of others on screen.

Richard Jenkins, Toni Collette and David Strathairn also deserve credit for their performances, which add gravitas to the film whenever they’re on screen.

The film’s aesthetic is also worthy of praise. The sharp shadows and stylish lighting capture the noir-feel and works hand-in-hand with the dark story of corruption. The movie also works as a period piece, capturing both an old, rickety carnival and lavish areas of depression-era Chicago in a way that feel hypnotic and romanticized.

“Nightmare Alley” slowburn approach works for almost the entirety of its runtime, but there are a few periods where the movie drags. It’s more often in the first half than the second half, but it’s noticeable when it does. Despite this, though, the film works on so many levels that it will always pull a viewer back in. It’s a remarkably strong effort by del Toro. 4.75 out of 5.


Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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