'Nightmare Alley' Review
Even with one of the most star-studded casts of the year, director Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar winning “The Shape of Water” isn’t bound for a similar awards season fate.
“Nightmare Alley” plays out as three completely different movies, each running about 45 minutes. So I’m going to do something rare: review and grade each section, and then grade the overall experience.
The first film within a film focuses on a late 1930’s traveling carnival and sideshow “freak” acts. This portion features characters played by Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn and Toni Collette. (As I said, what a cast!) This section is basic, creepy and oddly executed (bad dubbing and editing galore). Not isn’t very appetizing to eye or mind. GRADE: C-
The second part of “Nightmare Alley” is my favorite (though not spectacular by any means). Cooper’s Stan Carlisle discovers he has a gift for mentalism, or at least a way of making people think he has a gift. Stan and Molly Cahill (Mara) run away together to the big city. The story flash forwards two years, and their show has become a huge success.
A mysterious woman catches Stan’s eye. Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) in a classic ‘40s femme fatale. In a year when many movies are unnecessarily presented in black and white, the scenes between Cooper and Blanchett are begging for this film noir treatment.
The best element of this chunk of “Nightmare Alley” is following Stan’s descent into the ways of a crooked showman. Del Toro brings back “Shape of Water” star Richard Jenkins to play a rich recluse who falls under Stan’s spell. Personally, I’m a sucker for mentalists, especially those who get exposed by Penn & Teller on a regular basis on hit TV show “Fool Us”. If manipulative mind games aren’t your thing, this section will put you in a dull trance. GRADE: C+
The final act of “Nightmare Alley” is when things turn desperate. Del Toro drags this saga to its conclusion with an obvious, inevitable climax that does feature a couple of gross-out shock moments. But it never truly feels complete… or original… or suspenseful. GRADE: D+
“Nightmare Alley” is a tough marketing sell. It’s a slow character drama with barely any action or intensity. Del Toro fans can give it a shot (at your own risk). Cooper fans may want to give this a pass, as his performance, and the film as a whole, is not up to his usual standards.
Sadly, this is a dead end “Alley”.