Mesmerizing and bold, Nightmare Alley is a master class in cinematography. Guillermo del Toro once again delivers unmatched visuals that astonish and delight, taking us on a journey that, though not as strong as one would hope, manages to linger in the back of your mind. Unfortunately the narrative doesn’t land quite as strong managing to, somehow, leave us wondering when was the last time we fervently loved something that left us so disheartened.
A man with a dark past and an even darker secret is taken in by a traveling circus: a place where no one asks questions for fear of questions being asked in return. In no time he ingratiates himself among the talent, befriending a shockingly stunning young woman desperate for change, a charismatic seer hungry for excitement, and a brilliant man pleased to share his techniques with an eager pupil. But there are two sides to mentalism, and ending up on the wrong one may just push you to a place from which you can’t return.
If you’re like me you walk into del Toro films cautious because you never know which side you will get. Though there is an undeniable signature to his films he certainly does not like to stay in one lane. His films are visually stunning and never fail to make the audience’s imagination come alive. He, his team, and his entourage of “monsters” deliver spectacle on a consistent level unrivaled by most directors. So, I find it only fair to wonder… hey Guillermo, where are your monsters? The ones you have been so brilliantly faithful to in the past.
I believe the answer is that monsters live around us everyday. We shake hands with them, laugh with them, love them, and all the while are deceived by them. There is a beauty to this film that one, including myself, cannot appreciate upon a first watch. A depth that alludes, in particular, those of us who go in searching for creatures with eyes in the palm of their hands, amphibian men who just want to be loved, fauns that definitely can’t be trusted, or the angel of death himself looking to haunt us for years to come… basically those of us looking for Doug Jones.
Listen, this film has undeniable magic but we get lost in the world, waiting for the del Toro twist that never comes. Instead we are subjected to a story that is certainly an acquired taste because the film takes time to grow on you. I understand that it’s adapted but I like to take the approach of judging what is presented without considering the inspiration behind it.
Those issues aside, the score by Nathan Johnson is extraordinary & the performances are inspiring and consistent. Bradley Cooper elevates the charm and delivers big as the lead in this hauntingly dark character driven piece. Rooney Mara shines like the star she is. Cate Blanchett delivers a bone rattling performance. However, the showstopper has got to be Toni Collette who, once again, finds a way to amaze us even with her limited screen time.
Like I said, this is a film that will definitely benefit from a second viewing, some deep analysis, and a loud debate among friends. The journey is frightening and hypnotizing but, unfortunately, leaves us wanting something it just isn’t designed to deliver. I’ll let you figure out exactly what that is. That being said, this is definitely one to watch so, unlike me, set your expectations to default and make your way to a theater because Nightmare Alley will be a hot topic of conversation in 2022.