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Nightmare Alley review: Guillermo del Toro delivers a bleak, beautiful noir

Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has a knack for making audiences uncomfortable in beautiful ways. Whether he’s exploring human-merman romance in The Shape of Water or filtering the horrors of war through a dark, fairy-tale lens in Pan’s Labyrinth, he always finds a way to drape darkness and depravity in a gorgeous, cinematic atmosphere that captures your attention and holds it there, no matter what unfolds on the screen.

Such is the case with Nightmare Alley, a neo-noir thriller co-written and directed by del Toro and based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name. The film follows an ambitious carnival worker who uses his training in reading and manipulating people to pull off one lucrative con after another and rise through society. When he partners with a cold, calculating psychologist in order to go after a wealthy, ruthless businessman, the former carny soon finds himself wrapped up in a dangerous game he can’t afford to lose.

Although it never hits the same emotional high marks of the aforementioned Pan’s Labyrinth or The Shape of WaterNightmare Alley showcases del Toro’s tremendous talents by dispensing with the supernatural elements of his past films and delivering a potent, powerful thriller shaped by his unique vision and polished performances from a star-studded cast.

Bradley Cooper navigates a carnival funhouse in Nightmare Alley.

Mood makes the man

Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) leads the cast of Nightmare Alley as Stan Carlisle, a man whose dark past leads him to work in a traveling sideshow, where he learns the art of reading people and performing as a mentalist — someone who claims to have extraordinary powers of perception and the ability to communicate with the dead. He eventually takes his show out of the carnival and into the city, growing his audience while attracting the attention of powerful individuals with more than a few skeletons in their closets. His ambition eventually puts him on the radar of psychologist and femme fatale Dr. Lilith Ritter, played by Cate Blanchett, as well as cold-blooded industrialist Ezra Grindle, played by Richard Jenkins.

As with so many of del Toro’s films, Nightmare Alley blends meticulously crafted lighting, set design, and sound into a moody symphony that fills every nook and cranny of the screen — even the shadows — with a sense of impending dread. There are fascinating things to look at and hear in each and every shot, from the colorful signage and background chatter within the carnival to the stark architecture and eerie silence of Stan’s surroundings in the city, to the unique details present in each character’s choice of wardrobe. Del Toro gets the most out of every shot he films, and his talent for using light, shadow, and sound in captivating ways is on full display in Nightmare Alley.

With eight Oscar nominations to his name already, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Cooper never falters in the film’s lead role, but Nightmare Alley is a great reminder of how much talent he brings to films. Stan’s arc takes him as low as any character could be to the heights of metropolitan high society, and Cooper’s performance gives him a depth that — in keeping with his character’s moral fluidity — makes him difficult to classify. At various points, he’s stoic, sinister, or sincere, constantly shifting as he gets lost in layer after layer of the fiction he’s wrapped his life in.

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper ina scene from Nightmare Alley.

Smoldering support

Nightmare Alley is filled with memorable performances from its supporting cast, too, which features plenty of familiar faces from del Toro’s past films.

Along with Ron Perlman, who has appeared in a long list of del Toro’s projects already and plays a carnival strongman (and is credited with initially giving the filmmaker Gresham’s book years ago), the film gives audiences another memorable role for The Shape of Water actor Jenkins, who makes efficient use of his limited screen time to deliver a scary-good performance as the unrepentantly cruel mark in Stan’s most dangerous con.

Playing a married couple who serve as mentors to Stan early on, Toni Collette and David Strathairn make sure their relationship to Cooper’s character is full of nuance and the sort of foreshadowing that begs for a second viewing of the film. Willem Dafoe also has a nice return to weird, wonderful form in the film, playing the carnival boss who initially hires Stan and introduces him to the never-ending scam of the sideshow trade.

Perhaps the most captivating of the film’s supporting cast, however, is Blanchett as the frosty, inscrutable psychologist who reluctantly partners with Stan as his mentalist schemes reach new heights among the city’s power brokers. Blanchett and Cooper’s scenes together really are something special to behold, and rekindle the magic of classic noir films in all the right ways. Smooth, seductive, and willing to tease out every ounce of tension a scene can possibly generate, the actors’ moments together in Nightmare Alley are spellbinding, filling every look with potency and adding weight to every word of dialogue they share.

Bradley Cooper is masked in a scene from Nightmare Alley.

Risk meets reward

Del Toro’s resume is filled with projects that manage to both defy expectations and offer audiences a new — and typically, frightening — way to look at classic stories, genres, and storytelling devices. And in that respect, Nightmare Alley is the latest addition to that list, offering plenty of surprises and narrative twists and turns in a story that still feels familiar by virtue of its genre and the tools del Toro uses so well in each of his films.

But Nightmare Alley is also a big departure of sorts for the filmmaker, taking his vision to places we really haven’t seen it go before now, and without some of the biggest, boldest elements we’ve come to associate with his name. Ultimately, it’s a risky project, but that risk makes everything it does right feel more rewarding.

Filled with powerful performances and beautifully cinematic set pieces, and fueled by the vision of a master filmmaker with an uncanny grasp of mood and atmosphere, Nightmare Alley delivers everything you want from a noir thriller directed by del Toro — even if you didn’t know you wanted it.

Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley premieres December 17 in theaters.

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