New from Kevin Wozniak on Kevflix: Review: Nightmare Alley



Nightmare Alley marks director Guillermo del Toro’s first film following his Best Picture-winning The Shape of Water, a beautiful, twisted romance that looked at the love between a mute woman and an amphibian fish person. del Toro netted himself a Best Director Oscar along with Best Picture and the film also went on to win Best Original Score and Best Production Design, along with being nominated for a total of thirteen awards. I’m always fascinated with a director’s follow-up film after they win huge at the Oscars. Some directors follow it up with another hit and Oscar contender, like Alejandro González Iñárritu, who followed up his Oscar wins for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) with another Best Director win for The Revenant. Some, on the other hand, hit a bump in a road, like Ron Howard did when he followed up his Best Director and Best Picture win for A Beautiful Mind with The Missing, a movie that was met with lukewarm critical responses and was all but irrelevant during the 2003 award season.

Wondering what the awards prospects of Nightmare Alley are tough to call. It did receive several nominations at the Critics Choice Awards, one of the major awards precursors, so it seems like it could be on its way to garnering some awards. However, awards aside, Nightmare Alley is one of Guillermo del Toro’s finest movies. It is a sprawling, shocking, nightmare noir that features one of the best performances of Bradley Cooper’s career, stunning cinematography, and set design, and a haunting ending.

Cooper stars as Stanton Carlisle, a drifter who starts off the movie on a trail with nowhere to go. He ends up at a traveling circus and starts earning his keep amongst the carnies by doing odd jobs and assisting with acts. He becomes close with Pete (David Strathairn) and Zeena (Toni Collette), a couple of “mind-readers” who teach Carlisle the tricks of the trade and understand how to read and manipulate people. Carlisle also falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara) and asks her to leave the circus and hit the road with him to start their own act.

The film then jumps forward two years to find Carlisle and Molly doing a solo act at a lounge in Buffalo, New York. During one performance, a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) begins to question Carlisle and the authenticity of his act. When Stanton turns the tables on her, he realizes there might be a business opportunity in using trauma to emotionally manipulate patients of Dr. Ritter. But when Stanton starts working with a dangerous, reckless new patient (Richard Jenkins), he realizes he might be in too deep and could be in danger.

We are used to del Toro and his films being more distinctly horror and loaded with wild and interesting creatures. From Cronos to The Shape of Water and everything in-between, all del Toro’s movies have featured some sort of fantastical creature or monster at its center. Nightmare Alley, adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name, and inspired by the 1946 adaptation of the book, is del Toro’s most grounded and most real-world movie. This is a dark, twisted noir that shows that man is the real monster, a theme that has run through all del Toro’s movies, and shows the effects of ego and greed. Bradley Cooper is remarkable as Carlisle, a smart, motivated, seemingly charming drifter who is a master of manipulating not just emotionally damaged rich men, but anyone who gets close to him. Carlisle doesn’t say much, usually observing his surroundings and the people he is trying to dupe, but Cooper’s piercing eyes show that Carlisle’s brain is turning and he has something up his sleeve. The final shot of the movie is one of the most haunting shots of the year and one of the great acting moments of Cooper’s career. 

Like all del Toro films, Nightmare Alley is masterfully crafted and loaded with good performances. The cinematography is stunning, mixing dark shadows with stark colors to give the film a striking look. The production design is gorgeous. From the gritty, weird circus to the glossy big city, every set is detailed and original. Along with Cooper, the supporting cast is loaded with big names who all bring their A-game, with standouts from Willem Dafoe as the creepy circus owner and Cate Blanchett, who steals the movie in the second half in one of my favorite performances of the year.

Again, I don’t know how Nightmare Alley will perform in terms of awards, but it is an incredibly well-made film and an interesting follow-up to del Toro’s Oscar win. As a remake, it keeps with the spirit of the original film, yet del Toro makes it his own. As a del Toro movie, it finds the director at his most grounded and his least fantastical. But del Toro handles that fantastically and gives us a twisted morality tale about the monster inside all of us.






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