Acclaimed auteur Guillermo del Toro hasn’t made a new film since winning both best director and best picture in 2018 for his eccentric feature The Shape of Water.
del Toro is known as a master of the avantgarde, relishing in the eccentricities of life and the oddities of horror for decades with everything from Pan’s Labyrinth to a pair of Hellboy films to an upcoming adaptation of Pinocchio for Netflix.
His latest film, Nightmare Alley, taps into del Toro’s love for the obscure and bizarre, all the while emphasizing the uniqueness of a period piece that twists and bends what the mind might find conceivable.
Based on both the 1946 novel and 1947 film of the same name, Nightmare Alley follows Stanton Carlisle, a man who joins the circus leading up to World War II after murdering a man and burning down his house. When he learns the art of mentalism from a “clairvoyant” couple, he sets off on his own for fortune that ultimately leads down a dark path.
Bradley Cooper provides a mostly stoic yet measured performance as Stanton and it’s a turn that helps ground the audience in the story without endearing them too much to his questionable choices.
While his chemistry with Rooney Mara’s Molly is somewhat shaky despite the plot’s desire to pair them, his ability to match Cate Blanchett’s mysteriously alluring Dr. Ritter makes for a scintillating repartee that anchors the back half of the film.
Nightmare Alley has an incredibly deep and talented supporting cast from David Strathairn and Toni Collette’s masterful work as the clairvoyants to Willam Dafoe’s circus leader to Richard Jenkins perfectly playing against type as a rich and nefarious widower.
del Toro’s film is a visual cavalcade of everything that makes del Toro one of the world’s premiere filmmakers. There’s so much depth to each scene with elaborate production design and set dressing creating a world in every location.
Cinematographer Dan Lausten creates a wide, expansive arena for cinematic beauty in every frame, longing for audiences to linger in the haunting complexities of del Toro’s vision. No matter what the camera is focused on, each character and set piece is framed and lit in such a way that demonstrably makes it feel like the most important moment in the entire film, which is an astounding feat for a feature littered with unforgettable imagery.
At a running time of 150 minutes, Nightmare Alley somewhat languishes out of the gate as del Toro deeply and richly builds the world of his film to the detriment of pacing. Once Stanton strikes out on his own, however, Nightmare Alley picks up considerably and becomes an exceptionally compelling noir.
The issue truly stems from del Toro’s insistence on creating a backdrop for Cooper and the rest of the cast to revel in. There isn’t much to define the story outside of the technical aspects for most of the first hour and many viewers may decide to opt out of the film altogether before things fully come to fruition.
As a result, Nightmare Alley is unlikely to receive any major acclaim come Oscars season, although it could do well in below-the-line categories like production design, cinematography and costuming.
While it might behoove ardent cinephiles to seek out specialty screenings of the film in its new limited black-and-white release, casual viewers might be more willing to take a chance on Nightmare Alley now that it has become easily accessible on Hulu and HBO Max. The vision of del Toro combined with masterful technical elements and compelling, yet somewhat thin performances make Nightmare Alley something worth taking a chance on via streaming service that they wouldn’t normally drive to a theater to see.