Nightmare Alley (15)

Nightmare Alley (15)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Runtime: 140 minutes

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn

Synopsis: In 1940s New York, down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle endears himself to a clairvoyant and her mentalist husband at a traveling carnival. Using newly acquired knowledge, Carlisle crafts a golden ticket to success by swindling the elite and wealthy. Hoping for a big score, he soon hatches a scheme to con a dangerous tycoon with help from a mysterious psychiatrist who might be his most formidable opponent yet.


Mexican film director, producer, screenwriter, and author, Guillermo del Toro is best known for his Academy Award-winning fantasy films Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017), winning the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture for the latter; now Alley follows up with this lavish take on William Lindsay Gresham’s classic pulp novel.

With an adapted screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan, and with a stellar cast -including Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Toni Collette and a career-best Bradley Cooper – Nightmare Alley is a ravishing, carnivalesque plunge into the darkest depths of noir.

Lavish, glossy and Gothic, in Nightmare Alley, visionary storyteller Guillermo del Toro journeys into the most arrestingly dark, sweeping and realistic world – the cinematic world of film noir.  The film moves from the inner circle of a 1930s traveling carnival, a realm of shocks and wonders, to the halls of wealth and power where seduction and treachery reside.  At its core lies a man who sells his soul to the art of the con.  This is Stanton Carlisle [Bradley Cooper: Licorice Pizza (2021); A Star is Born (2018); American Hustle (2013); Silver Linings Playbook (2012)] a charismatic, drifting hustler who transforms himself into a dazzling showman and manipulator so masterful he comes to believe he can outwit fate.  As Stanton makes his delirious rise, del Toro tracks a reckless American Dream running off the rails.

Guillermo del Toro reunites with The Shape of Water cinematographer Dan Laustsen to create a moody, sumptuous and visually gorgeous take on the mise-en-scene of old Hollywood glamour with unique and exquisite visuals. One of the darkest and most startling films ever to come out of the Hollywood’s golden era was the 1947 Edmund Goulding original, filmed in black and white, based on a book many thought unfilmable at a time when the Production Code held sway.

Nightmare Alley confirms del Toro’s taste for flamboyant, grotesque art with phantasmagorical sets, while making serious comments about society in a repressed and distressed time.

When the bedraggled, down-on-his-luck, Stanton encounters a travelling carnival, whose  manager, Clem Hoately [Willem Dafoe: The French Dispatch, The Lighthouse (2019); At Eternity’s Gate (2018); The Florida Project (2017)] offers him hot food and a bed in exchange for heavy labour.  Soon he endears himself to clairvoyant Zeena [Toni Collette: Hereditary (2018); Unbelievable TV (2019); Little Miss Sunshine (2006); Sixth Sense (1999)] and her has-been mentalist husband Pete [David Strathairn: Good Night, and Good Luck (2005); Lincoln (2012); Billions (TV 2017-2019)]

A quick learner, Stanton soon crafts a golden ticket to success, using this newly acquired mind reading knowledge to grift the wealthy elite of 1940s New York Society. With the virtuous Molly [Rooney Mara: Carol (2015); The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011); Side Effects (2013); The Social Network (2010)] loyally by his side, Stanton plots to con a dangerous tycoon, Ezra Grindle [Richard Jenkins: The Humans (2021); Kajillionaire (2020); The Shape of Water (2017);The Visitor (2007)] with the aid of a mysterious psychiatrist, Dr Lilith Ritter[Cate Blanchett:) who might be his most formidable opponent yet.

“I was very interested in a story about destiny and humanity. Stanton Carlisle is a man who is given all the elements to change his life. He has people who believe in him, who love him and trust him. Yet his drive and his own hubris are so strong that they turn him away from that,” comments Guillermo del Toro.

Within Nightmare Alley, seething layers of corruption, vice, lust, betrayal, and cosmic absurdity build as Stanton learns to cynically prey on the human need to believe in something outside themselves and our world. Del Toro avoids the trademark visual aspects of noir, keeping the story speeding forwards, as Stanton’s life becomes a harrowing circle. Says del Toro, “I wanted to render a classic story in a very alive and contemporary way. I wanted people to feel they are watching a story pertinent to our world.”

With visceral realism, the film takes on the urgency of a moral fable—a tale of fate’s bill coming due, structured to end with a bang. “When an audience is invested in the story of a person’s rise, their greatest fear is the fall and that fall can be very emotionally strong,” says del Toro.

A macabre, twisty melodrama with enjoyable, superb performances and plenty of surprises.

In cinemas

Images courtesy of: Searchlight Pictures


Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved