When it comes to Guillermo del Toro projects, my view is “I’ll see it when I see it.” He has a lot of interests plus a vivid imagination and could feasibly do a good job of adapting any story in history. While he tends to veer toward the superhero and supernatural genres, Nightmare Alley proves that he has always had the skill to do it all.
The source material (originally a 1946 novel, then a 1947 film) is rich, and affords del Toro plenty of wiggle room with his adaptation. This is basically a two-act play: the first half deals with “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) picking up parlour tricks in a small-time carnival ran by Clem Hoately (Wilem Dafoe), and the second follows “The Great Stanton,” Stan’s alter-ego, in high society.
Cooper is transformative in this film, and at times I forgot he was even the lead. He’s joined by an all-star stable, with the likes of Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman—the list goes on. If there’s even a minor role that has an interaction with Stan, they’re probably an accomplished character actor at the bare minimum. The cast adds to the allure of Nightmare Alley’s pulp roots, as everyone is memorable and makes their mark on the story.
“The cast adds to the allure of Nightmare Alley’s pulp roots, as everyone is memorable and makes their mark on the story.”
That’s really important, given that a lot of the tale is character driven. A Noir at heart, we get to see all facets of this world, from the ugly to the sacred: with both rich and poor class systems opening and closing either door on a whim. It’s silly and campy at times, but the cast sells the seriousness of it, including some heavier elements of morality and deceit.
Nightmare Alley is lengthy, which flies in the face of the film and assists with its many required nuances. At nearly two and a half hours there’s a lot to get to, as we nearly see Stan’s entire adult career unfold before our eyes; sometimes at a glacial pace, despite how fast-talking Stan is. During this time, cinematographer Dan Laustsen keeps the focus on the cast, allowing us to see the pain on their faces and the reactions of everyone around them. The costumes deserve special recognition too, and they help telegraph some moments ever so slightly, contrasted by colourful performances.
I appreciate all the work Guillermo del Toro does in the entertainment industry as a whole, but he simply needs to make more films. His stamp is all over Nightmare Alley, and I’d love to see him take on more material like this.