Review: Nightmare Alley – Guillermo del Toro goes mental

Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro goes mental


After winning a slew of Academy Awards (including Best Director and Best Picture) for 2017’s The Shape of Water, writer/director Guillermo del Toro returns with Nightmare Alley, another weird, stylish and unsettling period film that is packed with incredible performances.

The story takes place in the 1940s and follows the journey of a drifter, Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), as he goes from a mysterious vagabond who joins up with the carnival, to a respected and popular “mentalist” who communicates with the deceased family members of the well-to-do believers who are willing to pay his price.

On his way up, Stan makes friends with the carny-folk like boss and barker Clem (Willem Dafoe), mind-reader Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner Pete (David Strathairn), strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman). Stan’s love interest is the “electrifying” Molly (Rooney Mara).

Stan and Mara end up departing the carnival in the dark of night and go on to create a successful con-act of their own, where they are soon performing for a much better paying crowd. But trouble ensues when an uppity psychiatrist, Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), entices Stan to scam the wealthy and powerful Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).

Nightmare Alley is based on the 1946 book by William Lindsay Gresham, which was also adapted to film in 1947, starring Tyrone Power. (The original movie’s trailer looks strikingly similar to the new film.) Guillermo del Toro’s gritty and bloody new version was co-written by Kim Morgan.

At two and a half hours in length, this film is a little bit bloated, but I never lost interest in it. For me, the ending was telegraphed early on, but it was still satisfying. The outstanding performances, especially by Blanchett and Cooper, and the movie’s amazing production design detail far outweigh any of the film’s minor missteps.

The story doesn’t quite play out in the way the film is being marketed, but I think that’s a good thing. Expect the unexpected and enjoy.

On the screen:

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About the author

Bob Leeper

Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.

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