Nightmare Alley Review: A gritty look behind the carnival curtains

Nightmare Alley blog cover

In Nightmare Alley, a drifter takes the Carnival Con too far, in this creepy cautionary tale of blind ambition

Bradley Cooper has come a long way since his ‘Hangover’ days, having taken to playing almost exclusively tortured characters over the last few years and this is no different.  ‘Nightmare Alley’ comes to us from director Hellboy, The Shape of Water) and sees him explore some familiar themes like outsiders in society trying to find their place, alongside some supernatural undertones.

Stanton Carlisle (nightmare

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

Hes’s search leads him to a travelling carnival with the type of diverse cast of characters you would expect to find, alongside one or two you might not. The film is set in the early 1940s and comes with the sights and sounds accurate to the time. The carnies are a makeshift group of those society consider oddballs and misfits but come together in their own family structure and genuinely care about each other.

They do not hesitate to take Stanton in as one of their own without asking questions. Carnival patriarch Clement “Clem” Hoatley, (played wonderfully by William Defoe) makes sure Stanton understands the rules around living within their community. Stanton very quickly begins to learn how best to manipulate different members of this family and while his charms don’t work on everyone, it was enough to give him access to some of the secrets behind the biggest carnival tricks

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

Nightmare Alley is what some might describe as a slow burner. It moves along at a methodical pace and while there are a few important events which occur in the first hour, it’s not necessarily high energy excitement and much more attention is paid to the delving deeper into the psyche of these fascinating yet reserved characters. The nature of their business demonstrates they are all comfortable with a level of deception which means that the morally ambiguous Stanton fits right in.

These characters are seen as freaks of nature and are happy to trade on these reputations. Deception is their business but unlike a simple magic trick, there is always something more sinister going on just below the surface. Gullermo del Toro excels at demonstrating just how terrible people can be to other people. Also, while the appearance of monsters, beasts and supernatural elements aren’t as prominent as in other Del Toro movies, he still manages to maintain a dark unnerving ‘monster’ feel.

The cinematography remains excellent throughout. Despite the gloomy, blacks and dark palette of the first two acts, it still manages to maintain a certain glow and vibrance, an almost dream like quality. Carnival grounds are supposed to be places of joy, mystery and wonder but we never feel quite at ease.  Watching from our side of the screen, the chimes of the merry go round in the background almost evoke a ghostly terror.

Nightmare Alley features great performances from the supporting cast including William Defoe and Toni Collette, but the screen really lights up in the third act with the introduction of Cate Blanchett as Lillith Ritter, where the tragic love triangle plays out. The battle is between Lillith and Stanton’s girlfriend Molly (Rooney Mara) for control of Stanton’s already corrupt soul. Molly just wants his love, but Lillith wants to see how much further she can lead him down a darker path.

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Cate Blanchett as Lillith Ritter
Cate Blanchett as Lillith Ritter

The film takes a while to get going, with the obligatory world building taking a bit longer than it could. Some may not persevere but those that do, will be handsomely rewarded. The film gains a great energy in the third act once the pieces fall into place and Stanton’s love life and final elaborate con begin to unravel. And if you paid attention during the earlier parts of the film, the cruel irony of Stanton’s destination and his final laughter provide an even more satisfying conclusion.

Nightmare Alley is in cinemas now and has been nominated for Best Picture at the 94th Academy awards

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