Review: Nightmare Alley

Score: A-

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins

Running Time: 150 Minutes

Rated: R

A character who begins a film by burying a dead body beneath the floorboards of a house can't sink much lower. But Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is rotten to the core. Over the course of Nightmare Alley, he will continue to believe he can compartmentalize his evil deeds. He will keep falling only to find there is no bottom.

At first, his charm and generous nature seem genuine nature. But he's already giving a masterclass in deception. While toiling away at a carnival, he catalogs away all the tricks taught to him by owner Clem (Willem Dafoe) and psychics Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn). He's always looking ahead for something bigger and better. While he wins over literal shock artist Molly (Rooney Mara), she's basically the only one who can't see he's up to no good. Stanton is a man who keeps up appearances until he's gotten everything he can out of a person, then he abandons or kills them.

When he meets a seductive blonde (Cate Blanchett), she takes him down an even darker path. They team up to defraud her rich clients: She gives him their darkest secrets; he pretends to divine this information in private sessions, offering absolution for past sins. But like all good noirs and crime stories, trying to go all in on a big score ups the danger significantly. Stanton moves from well-executed parlor tricks to a long con on an energy baron (Richard Jenkins), risking his business, his partnership with Molly, and his life.

Nightmare Alley is certainly not a pleasant movie, but for cinephiles there are pleasures galore. The production design by Tamara Deverell, Brandt Gordon and Shane Vieau is stunning and deserves to win the Oscar. Dan Laustsen's cinematography manages to give the film a grimy feel despite being shot digitally. And the 1940s costumes are immaculate, giving everyone an appropriate look for wherever they are, even when that look highlights how out of place they are.

And the cast is an embarrassment of riches. Great character actors like Ron Perlman, Clifton Collins Jr and Tim Blake Nelson deliver in small roles. And the film uses actors with real physical extremities to play the carnival workers. This is not one of those films where everyone you see looks like a model slumming it. The film succeeds in making nearly everyone look awful at some point: exhausted, drunk or strung out. (Everyone except Mara, Collette and Blanchett, of course. Because that's impossible.)

The events of the film depict a nightmare, but for fans of Guillermo Del Toro and twisted crime stories, it's a dream come true.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.