Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
There’s a common misconception regarding film noir’s status as a cinematic genre. Granted, film noir is usually defined by specific signifiers such as a hard-boiled detective, a femme fatale or a chilling mystery, but there have been plenty of noirs without any of these elements. From that perspective, it’s more appropriate to describe film noir as a tone rather than a genre. When considering that vastly different films such as Sunset Blvd (1950), On The Waterfront (1954), Chinatown (1974), Blade Runner (1982), LA Confidential (1997), Fight Club (1999) and Drive (2011) are all regularly catagorised as film noir, it becomes clear that it’s more about the haunting presentation and cynical worldview. In the genre’s heyday, film noirs even brushed up against gothic horror, meaning it was only a matter of time before director Guillermo del Toro attempted a noir revival. Consequently, he has delivered Nightmare Alley (2021), a fascinating retelling of the original 1947 film and 1946 novel of the same name.
We are introduced to Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), an aimless wanderer who finds purpose upon joining a travelling carnival. Every day these performers scam the audience with clever parlour tricks, and every night they count their pennies and drink their sorrows. Stanton becomes particularly close with Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn) and Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette), a con artist couple who teach him the parlour tricks necessary to perform as a medium. After perfecting the art form Stanton and his new love Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) leave the carnival to begin their own scam. As Stanton’s ambition and notoriety grows, he secretly teams with sultry psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) to scam powerful politicians with whom she has connections. Of course, all of this might just be a battle between two schools of psychological manipulation.
Like all Del Toro films, Nightmare Alley is a hauntingly beautiful creation with absolutely breathtaking cinematography and production design. Where most films prefer to have these elements melt into the background, Del Toro puts them front and centre, ensuring they are an integral part of the storytelling. Whether you’re in an opulent psychologist’s office, a filthy carnival tent, or a garden covered in snow, Del Toro makes sure you notice the surroundings and infuses every space with narrative detail. Even while the characters are telling us things about themselves, the audience learns so much more from the bars they frequent, the places they sleep or the alleys they conduct their business. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen brings these eerie locations to life in a way which even trumps his work on Del Toro’s previous effort, The Shape of Water (2017).
Given that so much of Del Toro’s flair is tied to his tonal and visual presentation, it stands to reason he’s suited for a classically gothic film noir. This isn’t directed like a traditional period piece, as it’s far more akin to a heightened pulp novel. The staging, blocking and tone is deliberately unnatural, all directed with the intention of throwing the viewer off balance. For those familiar with traditional film noir, Nightmare Alley is an absolute joy once the main narrative kicks in. Seeing Del Toro’s colourful interpretation of the iconic archetypes, standoffs and witticisms makes for a highly enjoyable experience, which is especially impressive considering the trademark cynicism is still upheld. This does result in some predictability in terms of detectable tropes, but to be fair it has been a while since we’ve seen a film noir that is unashamed of the genre’s roots.
Thankfully, the entire cast also understands the assignment, as every one of them successfully transforms into these dark and distrustful people. Willem Dafoe, Ron Pearlman, Toni Collette and David Strathairn don’t have a huge amount of screen time, yet they successfully lay the groundwork for the film’s entire thematic thesis as well as cementing themselves in the viewer’s memory. Cate Blanchett practically steals the show with her smouldering and mysterious turn as the duplicitous Ritter, which is nicely contrasted with Rooney’s work as the innocent Molly. However, it’s Bradley Cooper who might’ve delivered a career best performance as the dangerously ambitious Stanton. There’s not a single hero in the bunch, but we are still afforded the opportunity to understand and sympathise with their less than noble motivations.
When looking at the character’s motivations, the film’s most interesting complexities become clear. The narrative’s dark analysis of psychological manipulation isn’t a subtextual element, but rather the very thing causing conflict. This is a very theatrical storytelling format, as it basically allows the plot, dialogue and action to drop the pretence. Therefore, Del Toro can just get straight to the heart of what he’s trying to say, without needing to hide beneath narrative context. While this would ordinarily result in a lack of subtlety, Del Toro still leaves plenty of room of thematic interpretation.
While this is a particularly strong entry in Del Toro’s filmography, it’s not without pacing, editing and general storytelling issues. At 150 minutes long, Nightmare Alley is arguably pushing the limits of what’s appropriate for its story. This is especially noticeable considering the main plot doesn’t really kick in until roughly 45 minutes in, as the unnaturally long first act is basically a detailed origin story designed to give context for the actually interesting parts. This is further compounded by the disjointed third act, which plays out through at least three appropriate conclusions before the credits actually roll. It may be safer to say that Nightmare Alley employs a five act structure, but that doesn’t elevate the opening and closing sequences. At the very least, they don’t sink the narrative as these are still necessary beats for the film to function as intended.
Judging from the film’s dismal box office, it’s quite clear there’s not much interest in Del Toro’s film. Executives and studios would argue that the noir genre is still in a rut, but if audiences were given the opportunity to discover it, I’m certain Nightmare Alley would find a dedicated fanbase. Hopefully the film’s Best Picture nomination will prevent this impressive work from fading into obscurity.
Best way to watch it: With a good Whiskey.