Director: Guillermo del Toro
Date: December 17, 2021
R | 2 hour 30 minutes
“Nightmare Alley” is a boring movie — there’s no other way to put it. A remake of the 1947 neo-noir of the same name, the 2021 Oscar bait is visually striking yet feels hollow and pointless.
As his 1940s Midwestern home burns, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) joins a carnival run by the slimy Clem (Willem Dafoe). He meets self-proclaimed clairvoyant Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband, Pete (David Strathairn). Stan finds the husband-wife carny couple employ cold readings and a complex coded language to trick participants.
Stan comes into possession of their coded language and takes the show to Chicago with his lover, Molly (Rooney Mara). He impresses the city’s elite including the mysterious Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and the duo conceive a dangerous ploy to fool bigger fish.
Director Guillermo del Toro’s (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak”) best works are his supernatural features and, while this movie has an eerie, ominous setup, it fails to build off the first act. It’s clear del Toro is trying to capture noir elements found in the original but his lack of experience in this genre renders the film meaningless and drab.
Some of the best Hollywood noirs, such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Chinatown,” have a gripping central plot or a captivating mystery at their core — “Nightmare Alley” has neither. Once Stan moves to the city, there’s no tension or interesting elements during his scheme.
It doesn’t help that the people he tries to swindle aren’t particularly interesting either. Chicago elite Ezra Grindle (a heavily bearded Richard Jenkins) is supposed to be a character who elicits sadness and remorse from the audience. Instead, the movie seems to prioritize his prosthetics over his character arc.
At 150 minutes, the film moves slower than molasses, especially in the second act. If del Toro had trimmed some of the excess in this portion, “Nightmare Alley” could’ve been a thrilling watch. It tests the audience’s patience with its lack of energy and fails at being an effective slow burn.
This movie is made to be appreciated more than liked. The technical elements are strong, specifically the production design which successfully captures the dreariness of 1940s Chicago.
The main cast offers intriguing performances as well. Cooper (“The Hangover,” “A Star is Born”) and Blanchett (“The Aviator,” “Carol”) are nefariously great and remind the viewer of iconic old-Hollywood noir pairs. Their scenes — far and few between — are easily the most engrossing parts of the movie. Blanchett is a terrific femme fatale and shows she’s one of the best actresses in the industry.
Cooper goes toe-to-toe with her and gives a sound performance. He shines when Stan loses control over his ambition, which comes far too late in the movie. Without spoiling anything, the final scene is a smart callback to an important scene in the beginning and Cooper is absolutely stellar in it.
The rest of the cast — Mara, Collette and a fun, severely underused Dafoe — fit their roles well. Collette (“Hereditary,” “Knives Out”) is an underrated actress who elevates every movie she’s in. The Australian actress is quite enjoyable as Zeena, with no scene better than the one where she consoles a grieving carnival attendee.
It’s pretty to look at and features pretty people but “Nightmare Alley” is a pretty big disappointment. With del Toro at the helm and a talented star cast, this should’ve been a far more engaging, perhaps even campy movie. Instead, this is a nightmare of a noir.
“Nightmare Alley,” rated R, is now playing in theaters.