'Nightmare Alley' review: gloriously stylish and visually compelling

Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro returns with an A-list cast, including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in 'Nightmare Alley'. Photo: 20th Century Studios
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Given The Shape of Water’s Best Picture and Best Director success at the 2018 Academy Awards, its co-writer and director Guillermo del Toro was always going to have plenty of options for his follow-up.

Not only when it came to which film he was going to make, but also the cast that he’d have at his disposal. So while Nightmare Alley is similar to the rest of del Toro’s oeuvre, as it revolves around a group of outcasts coming together to form a bizarre family, the psychological thriller/horror also undoubtedly has the best cast of his career.

First and foremost because it stars Bradley Cooper, whose movies have now grossed more than $11 billion across the world. Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, who, in 1939, after burning down his Midwestern home, takes a lowly job at a travelling carnival. Stan soon learns the tricks of the trade from Clem (Willem Dafoe), while becoming friends with clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn).

He falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara) and vows to take her away from life on the road, with their own act. This ultimately includes psychologist Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who helps Stan to swindle the rich and elite out of money.

Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara in 'Nightmare Alley'. Photo: 20th Century Studios

Like every other del Toro film, despite appearing to be disturbing and creepy, Nightmare Alley is gloriously stylish and alluring. The Mexican director yanks you into the rather surreal and nefarious world of the carnival, creating an unsettling atmosphere that, even when the film moves to more luxurious surroundings, still permeates. His subtle use of weather, particularly snow, as Stan becomes more villainous, is especially impressive.

Alongside celebrated Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen, del Toro patiently builds suspense, occasionally punctuating it with sudden bouts of violence and gore. He also takes his time allowing the story to unfold, as he makes sure that every aspect of life as a “carny” is covered. While this might lead to Nightmare Alley meandering into some needless scenes, the film is always fascinating to get lost in.

Nightmare Alley can actually be split into two halves. Over the first hour and 15 minutes, we see Stan acclimate to his new life. Then he and Molly take their act to indoor performances in New York, which is where they meet Lilith. There’s no denying that the film loses some of its luster once it moves to its urban setting.

Sure the addition of Blanchett brings a panache and presence that any film would benefit from, but del Toro is clearly at his most comfortable when he’s diving into the quirks and habits of the outcasts.

However, Nightmare Alley suffers because Cooper feels miscast as Stan.

'Nightmare Alley'

Director:Guillermo del Toro

Stars:Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

Rating: 3/5

After four Academy Award acting nominations, there’s no denying Cooper’s talents. But he’s never able to really sell the conniving and ruthless side of Stan. Unlike del Toro, he’s much more comfortable when Stan is enthusiastic, hard-working and charming. The pair come close to meshing their sensibilities but, ultimately, they just don’t quite gel in a manner that actually enhances the movie.

That doesn’t come close to ruining Nightmare Alley as a spectacle. Its striking and absorbing visuals alone make it worthwhile. Plus, it features one of the most compelling final shots in recent cinema history. Even though, with a running time of two hours and 30 minutes, it takes a little too long to get there.

Nightmare Alley will be in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday

Updated: January 26, 2022, 10:43 AM
'Nightmare Alley'

Director:Guillermo del Toro

Stars:Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

Rating: 3/5