Nightmare Alley

72 / 100

Watchable Minutes : 2 and a half hours is a long movie, especially for one as boring as this. While mechanically it is a great movie, the run time is abhorrent. There’s 100 minutes of watchable footage here. 

Movie or Film : Nightmare Alley is an interesting story but is difficult to put into either bucket. There are strong themes, but the staggering run time prevents them from being doled out at a reasonable pace and the audience can bore quickly. Ultimately, this noir drama belongs in the film category. 

Info : 

  • Run time : 2 hours 30 minutes
  • Studio : Fox Searchlight Pictures
  • Director : Guillermo del Toro
  • Where to Watch : In Theaters

Summary : 

A down on his luck drifter with nothing to hold him down comes across a cheap and grisly carnival after stumbling into town one rainy evening. Eager to earn a few dollars and get a good nights sleep, he agrees to work for the carnies and is eventually accepted as one of their own. After falling in love and learning the skills to be a mentalist, he takes to the big city and establishes himself with his own act until he catches the eyes of somebody even more dangerous and clever than he expects. 

Review : 

Based on a 1940s novel of the same name (with an existing film adaptation), Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, and Ron Perlman headline this 2021 remake. Guillermo del Toro helms this crew and brings his unique storytelling flair and visuals to the table to craft a slow-burn drama with many twisted and vicious moments from start to finish. With a long run time to accommodate his unique visual style, del Toro takes full advantage of the cast and delivers an interesting story, but fails to make it exciting for more than a few moments at any given time.

Nightmare Alley is a long movie at 2 hours and 30 minutes long. That should allow for plenty of time to tease out a few exciting or horrific moments here and there to compliment the dramatic noir thriller that the title suggests it will have, but ultimately the spectacle for the story takes precedence. Beginning with a flashback to a run-down midwestern-style home, Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle says goodbye to a dying old man that the audience is supposed infer to be his father. Carlisle proceeds to drag the body into a crevice under the floorboards and light the house on fire. Then he walks out with a radio and a few shabby belongings and eventually stumbles across a carnival ground that will become his home for the next few years. Carlisle makes a good impression on Clem Hoatley, portrayed by Willem Dafoe, and is offered a long term job and a place to sleep. Clem even gives Carlisle the secret to running a succesful geek show. He says that he drugs and manipulates vulnerable men and drives them to complete insanity so that they will perform the routine. This disgusts Carlisle and he refuses to be part of it, but it does not make him leave.While Carlisle adjusts to the new carnie lifestyle, he learns the tricks of the trade – including how to spot a guillable mark and take advantage of them. This is accomplished by his new friendship with Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette). The two form a friends with benefits type relationship as Zeena married young to an older man named Pete (David Strathairn) who is slowly drinking himself to death. While Carlisle grows close with Zeena and Pete, he gains their confidence and they slowly share the secret to their most successful carnival act – a mentalist routine where Zeena would describe an item or person to a blindfolded Pete using coded language. Pete warns Carlisle not to use the act to put on a “spook show”, which involves giving the mark false hope about communicating with the dead. During his tuteledge with Pete and Zeena, Carlisle falls in love with Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), the adoptive daughter of the circus owners. He uses his charm and smooth talking skills to convince her to abandon the carnival with him and become part of his new mentalist routine.

The story skips forward a few years later and showcasaes the success of Carlisle’s mentalist routine in the upper echelons of Chicago. He performs his routine with the help of Molly, who has nearly perfected the routine but lacks the skill to fully meet Carlisle’s standards. This is when the audience first gets to see the darker side of Carlisle, as he is harsh and rude to his wife. He demands perfection, but doesn’t share the blame when the routine has an error. Carlisle continues his transformation into human garbage as he connects with an audience member named Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She tries to ruin his routine by calling out the coded messaging and Carlisle is able to pivot and make a few lucky guesses to keep the illusion alive. After visiting her place of business, he discovers that she is a therapist for many of the elite Chicago socialites that attend the mentalist acts. The two begin an affair and with her inside knowledge of her clients, Carlisle begins to use the mentalist act to put on spook shows for the guillable, rich marks while splitting the money with Ritter. When a particularly dangerous client of Dr. Ritter’s named Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) contacts Carlisle and begs him to help communicate with his long deceased and illigitimate former lover, Carlisle agrees, much to Molly’s behest. She warns him that this is dangerous and unethical, but Carlisle is blinded by greed and lust. Molly agrees to help with one final spook show before she leaves Carlisle for good. When the act goes wrong, Carlisle kills Grindle and looks to Dr. Ritter for help. However, she had been using him all along, secretly recording his confessions and their conversations to steal all the money they made together. Carlisle then goes on the run, disgraced and ruined until he stumbles across yet another carnival. The carnival manager says that they have no use for a mentalist, but he does have an opening for a geek, to which Carlisle responds through tears and laughter that he was born for it.

Stanton Carlisle’s descent into madness and ruin is foreshadowed about 45 minutes or so into the runtime when Clem reveals the secret to running an incredibly evil, disgusting, and illegal geek show. He continues down this dark path when he meets the aptly named Lilith Ritter, who is the devil in disguise of the story. Carlisle makes a deal with her and sells his soul for fame and money and eventually (and predictably) is double crossed in spectacular fashion. This insane story is well written, but suffers from pacing issues and an over indulgence of style over substance on the part of del Toro. There’s a good bit of information doled out over the runtime, but there’s a lot of time spent in between useful knowledge drops just doing nothing other than killing time. The cast is talented enough to keep the movie afloat, but that only goes so far when the story is so slow moving that it feels like an eternity in between beats. Bradley Cooper does a fine job taking Stanton Carlisle through the ups and downs of character development, opposite both Rooney Mara, who is overly trusting and manipulateable, and Cate Blanchett who is devilishly clever and evil in her own right. While Willem Dafoe and Ron Perlman’s roles fade out in the second act, they are a presence that gives the movie a little bit more life, but could have ultimately been replaced by anyone. They certainly didn’t make or break their roles and the same can be said for the rest of the supporting cast.

While del Toro made sure to include his unique style in every frame of the movie, there aren’t any exceptional scenes or camera shots that stick out. Similarly, the score is boring and uninspiring. It felt bland and unnoticeable at every turn, even during climactic moments. The rest of the mechanics of Nightmare Alley are well rounded, with quality sets and wardrobes. The carnival and carnies were gross, wet, and miserable all throughout their screen time. The WWII era Chicago area looked convicing and suitably art deco, especially in Dr. Ritter’s office and Grindle’s private estate. There wasn’t any obvious CGI, which makes it easy to think that there wasn’t any, when in fact it was done so well as to be unnoticeable. A noir drama such as this deals with dark subjects and it is an easy lever to pull to make the movie visually dark as well to match the subject matter. However, del Toro puts together excellent use of light and dark to create a shadowy, but clear picture in every scene.

Nightmare Alley is a swing and a miss, with quality visuals and A list talent. Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett put the story through its paces and make it watchable to a point, but they can only do so much when the source material is boring and overly drawn out for no reason at all. While the title and trailer suggest that supernatural elements would be common, the audience is instead served a slow burn noir drama about the cost of greed and selling one’s soul.

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