Guillermo Del Toro’s remake of Nightmare Alley looks amazing, but suffers from poor pacing and a surprising lack of chemistry between the A-list leads. The film drags considerably over its two hours and thirty minutes runtime. The individual performances, particularly in the first act, are strong, but then wane as the plot takes shape. Leaving Nightmare Alley on a downward trajectory that unfortunately failed to hold my interest.
Nightmare Alley opens in the early 1940s at a dingy carnival. Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a shady grifter on the run, is shocked and repulsed by the “geek” show. He convinces the carnival’s owner (Willem Dafoe) to hire him for odd jobs. Stan quickly ingratiates himself to the strange assortment of sleazy performers. He falls quickly for Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), the girl who gets electrocuted. But becomes fascinated by the trickery of Pete (David Straithairn) and Zeena (Toni Collette) Krumbein. They read people’s minds and bring them solace from their dearly departed dead.
Years later, Stan is a famed Mentalist with Molly as his assistant. They make a fortune scamming the rich in their act. A sultry psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), isn’t fooled by Stan’s chicanery. She offers him a tantalizing new mark to exploit. Her wealthiest client, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), is wracked with guilt. He desperately wants to communicate with a deceased lover. Stan jumps at the opportunity for his biggest score. But Ezra Grindle is a dangerous man with a vicious temper who doesn’t suffer fools.
Nightmare Alley aims to be a noir psychological thriller about the darkness of man. Lust, greed, murder, it’s all here on ample display. Stan’s conniving ways meet his match in the equally lecherous Dr. Ritter. Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett are decent in their parts. The problem is that they don’t mesh together on screen. There’s no intangible spark that connects the characters. The coupling is even worse between Cooper and Rooney Mara. She becomes kind of an afterthought in the story. Guillermo Del Toro spends a lot of time establishing his core relationships. They’re sadly not compelling and grind the film to a snail’s pace.
The production design, cinematography, and sets are masterful. Guillermo Del Toro’s eye for detail and atmosphere is the film’s best trait. The carnival scenes, muted in dirty brown, sell the hopeless existence of grifters. Del Toro has long tracking shots where every corner of the screen is filled with grim fascination. The second half of the story in the bleak city is also well realized. The characters trade their dusty duds for suits, dresses, and nightclubs, but the dark themes prevail. Nightmare Alley notches top marks in every technical and production category.
Most audiences will not be familiar with the 1947 classic film or novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Guillermo Del Toro’s version of Nightmare Alley should be judged on its own merits. My high expectations were unfortunately not met. This is the first Del Toro film that bored me. The second and third acts are exhausting to sit through. I can appreciate the skill it took to make Nightmare Alley, but did not find it to be an engaging experience. Nightmare Alley is a production of TSG Entertainment. It will have an exclusive theatrical release on December 17th from Searchlight Pictures.