Nightmare Alley review: plenty of style and not a lot of substance
Guillermo Del Toro is known for his talent with the macabre, so an adaptation of the psychological horror Nightmare Alley seemed right up his, well, alley (oof, sorry). This is the second film adaptation of the 1946 novel of the same name, which follows an ambitious man named Stanton Carlisle as his own thirst for power and wealth slowly begins to unravel him.
Nightmare Alley's cast is stacked. Stanton is played by Bradley Cooper, but he's not the only big name on the bill. There's also Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and David Strathairn, not to mention a brief but haunting cameo from Tim Blake Nelson.
With such a star-studded ensemble, one might anticipate the energy to leap off the screen. Unfortunately, this isn't so.
Cooper seems to strain under the weight of his character's eventual downfall, and it's just hard to buy him as a guy that somehow existed before the 1980s. Despite her carnival trick as a woman who can absorb electricity, Mara brings almost no spark to Mary.
Colette, Blanchette, and Dafoe are the only 'main' characters who seem to be acting with any verve. The rest plod through their preordained misery, no vim, nor vigour to make us care, let alone find it suspenseful or thrilling.
Stanton and Blanchette's Dr Lillith Ritter are meant to be two sides of the same coin — both using their innate and learned ability to read people in order to get under their skin. Stanton's motives are obvious: money and fame, but Ritter's are less so.
While wholly fictional, the world in which Nightmare Alley takes place is real, so when Lillith counters Stanton, calling her lady with "doctor", it should feel like it has some weight to it, but even with the Dramatic Pause For Effect, the line feels like a throwaway, like every other important line in the film.
Separately, Lillith has no character arc, instead, her eeriness comes from her profession alone in a way that Stanton doesn't suffer from. As a psychiatrist, she sees into people's minds, and that in and of itself is made out to be a danger, somehow more dangerous than Stanton's 'spook shows'.
It's hard not to wonder what Hollywood has against therapists. Yes, they make great villains and it's easy to see why; to truly understand the human mind is to be able to manipulate it in a way 'everyday folk' are unable to do.
In the case of Nightmare Alley, though, Lillith's particular sleaziness doesn't seem borne out of anything else than her ability at her job. She becomes cast as the bad side of the coin to Stanton's light.
Even as Stanton does bad things, they have the air of Oedipus about them: a man struggling against his fate and no matter what he does he'll end up trapped, and so you somehow sympathise with him even when he's a jerk. Lillith is granted no such sympathy despite having an arguably stronger narrative motive for her behaviour (hell hath no fury, etc).
Unfortunately, it's just hard to care about Stanton enough to feel happy for his victories, or empathy for his failures; even schadenfreude is hard to come by in Nightmare Alley.
There are some bright spots – Toni Collette is devilishly charming, and Willem Dafoe brings all of his off-beat charisma to his role as the carnival boss. But they seem to be acting in a different film to Cooper, whose maudlin and oft-addressed, but not quite believable 'gifts' are so shrouded in the weight of expectation it practically suffocates the film.
Likewise, Ron Pearlman is always a delight to see on screen, and the aforementioned cameo from Nelson is downright scene-stealing (which is saying something, given the scene he's stealing). The rest of Nightmare Alley is a shallow dip into the waters of a doomed man, making it easy enough to watch, but not moving enough to linger.
Nightmare Alley is now out in UK cinemas.
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