Landing in UK cinemas today is the fantasy crime-thriller, Nightmare Alley. The movie – directed by Guillermo del Toro – is based on the novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, and stars Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, and Willem Dafoe.
Nightmare Alley follows the story of a mysterious drifter called Stanton Carlisle, who happens upon a carnival. Here he is offered a short-term job, which he happily takes, and this in turn puts him in employment alongside a psychic and her partner.
While working with the pair, Stanton learns a few tricks of the trade, including how to convince someone he is psychic. He later leaves the carnival, develops his skills in this field, and becomes a somewhat successful showman in his own right.
Then one night, while working his show, he crosses paths with a psychiatrist. She displays an interest in his act and is keen to speak to Stanton about his unique talents.
However, the psychiatrist wants more from Stanton than to just learn his secrets, and soon the pair join forces to use his unique talents for a very special confidence trick. But is Stanton really in control of the situation, or has he begun to believe his own hype?
Nightmare Alley is a curious movie and one which I mostly like. But it’s ‘mostly like’ and not ‘entirely like’, because for all its positives (of which there are many), the film doesn’t quite come together as much as I would have hoped.
The reason for this is because Nightmare Alley feels almost as if it is a picture of two halves. Both halves are good, and both could have been part of two equally fantastic films, but together they feel a little disjointed.
For the first half of the film, the majority of the events take place at a carnival. The setting is intriguing, imaginative, and very captivating.
All throughout this first section of the film, I was hooked. I was introduced to some weird and wonderful imagery, some great characters, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying where the movie was heading.
Then roughly half-way through Nightmare Alley, the film seems to shift gears, signalled by a two-year time jump and a change of setting. From here on out, the events of the movie relocate to a city, new characters are introduced, and the film seems to become something slightly different.
For me, this is where the movie loses a bit of its momentum, as well as some of its assets. By jettisoning everything that came before, including some of its key cast members (Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, etc), the movie seems to take a misstep, from which it never quite recovers.
Because of this, the film never entirely impressed me, and while I came away from the picture feeling fairly positive about huge sections of it, this remained a sticking point. So, yep, it didn’t quite work.
But I’ve said there are positives and there are, beginning with just how gorgeous this movie is. In terms of the way it looks, the way it is shot, and the way it is lit, Nightmare Alley is top notch.
I would expect nothing less from a Guillermo del Toro movie, but I am still always impressed when I see what he brings to the screen. From the strange and unusual sights of the carnival, to the sumptuous and decadent imagery on display in the city, this movie is a work of art.
There are some shots in this film which are just beautiful. In fact, this movie is never less than visually stunning.
It’s the sort of film that as you watch it, you know there are little details you are missing out on, that won’t be picked up until a second viewing. However, one thing you won’t miss, not even once, is just how good Cate Blanchette looks in every frame.
Blanchette is lit in a way that is so different to everyone else, that she becomes a true focal point for the movie. I couldn’t take my eyes off her during every scene she was in, and if there was an award for ‘Best Use of Cate Blanchett In A Movie’, then Nightmare Alley would win the award hands down.
The good thing is, this isn’t just an aesthetic thing, because although she looks good, Blanchette is able to back up her visual presence with a strong performance too. And the same can be said for every other cast member in this film, who all bring their A-game.
Chief amongst the strong performances is the one delivered by Bradley Cooper, who manages to make Stanton Carlisle both an incredibly interesting character, and a slimy, grubby one too. He becomes the epitome of a con artist, someone you wouldn’t trust around your nan, yet at the same time he is also undeniably magnetic.
I like Cooper at the best of times, but I really like him here. He leads this movie effortlessly.
Other positives in the film include the score, the costuming, and the general atmosphere. del Toro has created a great little world in this movie, and the whole thing has a dreamlike quality to it.
But despite any praise I can throw its way, I have to come back to the structure and its slightly disjointed feel. The story is also a little uneven and predictable, and this throws a spanner in the works too.
To me, this is a significant problem, and while it didn’t derail this movie entirely, it did stop me from finding true fulfilment. So, it’s fine, even excellent in places, just not quite up there with del Toro’s best work.
Nightmare Alley has a lot going for it, so I don’t want to detract from all of the good elements entirely, but it’s not amazing. That said, I expect die hard del Toro fans will enjoy it more than I did.