Updated: Mar 7, 2022
Celebrated monster movie auteur Guillermo Del Toro is back from his post-Oscar win hiatus with a distinct message: humans are monsters, too. Reputed as a director with a preference for the horrific and fantastical, Del Toro has this time turned his lens toward a 1940s carny. Nightmare Alley, a remake of a 1947 film and adaptation of the William Lindsay Gresham novel, follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) as he descends into the disquieting world of mid-20th century mentalism.
The first twenty minutes of the film are a bit of a slog to get through, as Del Toro dedicates them solely to worldbuilding. Bradley Cooper, already underperforming as Stan, is rarely given a substantial line to deliver. As an audience, we follow Stan as he acquaints himself with this world of human exploitation and falsities. Instead of allowing the viewer to uncover the realities of the carnival along with the twists and turns of the plot, Del Toro spends the runtime of the first act on unnecessary exposition, easily losing the focus and attention of less devoted audience members.
The story picks up when Stan begins to entertain substantial personal interactions with the women of the carnival. He meets and begins a sexual relationship with the alluring Zeena (Toni Collette) and later starts dating another carnival entertainer, Molly (Rooney Mara). The two women help provide the character of Stan with a bit more substance as they act as a mirror for his various hidden neuroses and character development.
As Stan’s relationship with Molly grows, he also develops a father-son-like relationship with Zeena’s husband Pete (David Strathairn), an expert carny. Stan’s time with Pete helps him inch towards reconciling his relationship with his dead father. Stan also takes advantage of Pete’s knowledge of mentalism. Although Pete provides Stan with a more stable paternal relationship than his father ever could, Stan still contributes to Pete’s death by secretly supplying the alcoholic with a fatal jar of wood alcohol.
Soon after learning the tricks of the mentalist trade from Zeena and her now-deceased husband Pete, Stan and Molly head to the closest city to eke out a living on the act they have perfected. Two years after Stan and Molly start performing a regular show at a hotel in town, Stan grows restless and turns to a local morally dubious psychiatrist, Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) to aid him in creating a more enthralling act: a spook show, as the characters call it. Despite Molly’s pleas for him to stop, Stan heads down a path of greed and destruction.
While the original adaptation of Nightmare Alley relies heavily on grittiness, Guillermo Del Toro stays true to his current obsession with glossy, smooth, and easy-to-consume cinematography. Simply put, Del Toro’s penchant for a gleaming look does not match or complement the gritty character study that is Nightmare Alley. It’s hard to focus on (let alone allow yourself to become invested in) Stan's fall from grace when his surroundings are so disarmingly lustrous.
Another distracting element of the film is Del Toro’s lack of sufficient direction for most of the actors. The members of the ensemble don’t seem to have a good grip on their characters. Bradley Cooper, for example, floats sleepily through scenes, leaving no lasting impact on the mind of a viewer. Willem Dafoe is typically an actor who can be counted on to deliver fully committed and realized performances, but in Nightmare Alley, he simply isn’t given enough to chew on. Dafoe gives a performance that could be expected of a typical actor, not one of his prowess or talents. A similar case can be made for Rooney Mara, an actor who consistently gives quietly brilliant performances. Her capability to use nuance as a weapon does not shine through in the film. The script simply doesn’t give her enough material to spin into something beautiful as she so often does.
Despite being accompanied by actors delivering mostly sleepy performances, one actor took it upon herself to provide a purposeful performance. Cate Blanchett plays a perfect femme fatale, but also so much more. As psychiatrist Lilith Ritter, Blanchett oozes something elusive. She’s darkly seductive and completely unforgettable. Her commitment to control of languid movement and line delivery makes her scenes the most entrancing in the film by a mile. For those brief moments that she and Cooper spend in Ritter’s office, Del Toro’s lush cinematography and set design fit with the story being told. Blanchett elevates Nightmare Alley’s weak script where other actors in the film fail to do so.
Del Toro is perhaps too much of a romantic for a tale as gruesome and cynical as Nightmare Alley. Fans of the original film may be displeased to find that Del Toro chooses to utilize the exhaustingly lengthy runtime to further explore the backstory of Stanton Carlisle. In another film, the choice to venture into the past of its main character might advance the plot and elevate the themes. In Nightmare Alley, it simply weighs the story down. The revelations the audience is presented with aren’t sharp or revelatory or even interesting enough to validate the aforementioned flashbacks.
The ultimate question of Del Toro’s 2021 version of Nightmare Alley is as follows: why does it exist if a better, grittier, more nuanced film was made 80 years ago? The new Nightmare Alley doesn’t pose or answer any questions that the original didn’t. It doesn’t challenge the audience with fresh themes or mind-boggling technical advancements. To put it bluntly, Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley tells a story that’s already been told and told better.