An atmospheric, bloated thriller
Nightmare Alley is a beautifully made, atmospheric noir thriller. It’s also way too long. Now, before an army of filmgoers angrily sharpen their knives, I’d like to preface this review to say I love long films. But this one really does take its sweet ol’ time to get to the good stuff.
That laborious ride is helped somewhat by gorgeous set design and excellent acting, and Guillermo Del Toro’s name alone will be enough to entice people into the theaters. Given the story we actually receive for all this effort, I can’t say the 2 hour 20 minute run-time makes it all that worthwhile. This could easily have shaved 30 minutes off the run-time and lost nothing.
Nightmare Alley’s leisurely pace starts by whisking us back to 1941. A mysterious stranger joins a carnival. That stranger is Stan Carlisle and, holding onto a past full of grief and torment, sets out to try and make a name for himself.
After learning more about the carnival and the gnarly little secrets they hold, courtesy of the slimy Clem, Stan starts to become ambitious and sets his sights on greener pastures. Helped along to see that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is fellow carny Molly.
Stan promise Molly the world and begins learning the tricks of the trade, namely the art of clairvoyance courtesy of Zeena and her partner Pete.
What follows is a slow-paced descent into the twisted world of deceit, misery and grief. As Stan starts to slip out of control and the pieces of his life that were assembled so meticulously crack, he’s left to question just who he’s putting his trust into, and whether he’s taking his act a step too far.
When it comes to noir thrillers, Nightmare Alley certainly has its positives, and some of that can be attributed to the aforementioned aesthetic. With a 60 million dollar budget, the production design here is absolutely fantastic.
Whether it be the carnival itself, complete with all the gnarly side-show acts and little graphical details, or Dr Ritter’s unnerving but exquisitely designed office, you can tell Nightmare Alley squeezes every dollar it can into making this a visual treat.
And that’s just as well because you’re going to need to ogle over the visuals for a good chunk of the run-time. The glacial pacing is a massive deterrent here and in my movie theatre, two people walked out and another was checking the time every once in a while.
Just when this film feels like it’s lulling you to sleep though, it suddenly whiplashes into a frenetic final act that, by ironic comparison, is over far too quickly.
The twists that do arrive in the final act are well written and designed to be pretty shocking, with some beautiful foreshadowing early on. The trouble is, anyone who’s remotely familiar with psychological thrillers like this will see the twists coming a mile off.
The ending scene (which I won’t spoil here) is the biggest culprit, just because of the amount of time and emphasis on this point early on in the movie.
Nightmare Alley’s big draw comes from its cast, and specifically that of Bradley Cooper. He is the real show-stopping star here and his portrayal of Stan Carlisle hits all the right buttons when it comes to his diverse range of emotions. Alongside Cate Blanchett, the pair have a crackling chemistry on-screen and this can really be felt during some of the later moments.
One of the more underrated elements of this movie that deserves far more praise than its getting is the musical score. Composed by Nathan Johnson, this is easily one of the big highlights. The unnerving string segments, alongside the minor-key piano give off a serious amount of chill, with the main motif repeated throughout the film’s long run-time.
Thematically, Guillermo Del Toro has always had a knack for making films with deeper meanings and Nightmare Alley is no exception. Ideas surrounding grief, trauma, aspiration and “seeing” one’s true purpose are all explored here, but they all feel pretty surface level, rather than themes there to be explored in more detail. Nevertheless, they’re woven into the story really well.
Nightmare Alley’s bloated run-time, simple story and orchestrated ending make it a bit of a tough sell – especially at nearly 2 and a half hours. This noir thriller could have been great and with tighter editing – especially during the slow burn opening – this could have been a punchy psychological thriller.
Great acting and a gorgeous aesthetic are just enough to keep this watchable, but Nightmare Alley is unlikely to be a fairground ride you’ll return to in a hurry – nor one this reviewer would recommend hurrying to the cinema to check out any time soon.
Verdict - 5.5/10