Nightmare Alley review: "Guillermo del Toro’s nightmares remain worlds apart from the pack"

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley
(Image: © Searchlight)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Lock up your chickens: Guillermo del Toro’s morality tale issues bracing hits of style and cynicism, with Blanchett drawing blood.

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Few filmmakers move between worlds with the fluent cogency of Guillermo del Toro. From arthouse to Hollywood, fairytale land to vicious wartime reality, his films trace lines of blood and feeling between territories with intuitive expressive force. 

Hence, perhaps, his long-nurtured interest in William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, first brilliantly adapted by director Edmund Goulding in 1947. A carnival noir with a heart of darkest hooch, del Toro’s pulp-prestige interpretation moves from circus to city via the analyst’s couch with deep currents of secrets and lies as connective tissue. If it rings a little more hollow than The Shape Of Water, consider that an index of the void it stares into. 

The empty man upfront is Stan (Bradley Cooper), first glimpsed dragging a body bag. Stan carries that bag of guilt with him metaphorically as he flees the scene of his crime and wakes up at a carnival, his teeming subconscious made real. As sideshow ‘geeks’ bite chickens’ heads off, Stan falls for Rooney Mara’s Molly (between electrocuting her) and finds a flair for fraudulent mentalism, which ferries him to fame in the city and into the orbit of sharp-eyed analyst Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Ever the grifter, Stan sniffs out a potential scam – but is he up to it? 

Perhaps too likeable for his own good, Cooper is the one loose link in a superlative cast, never fully committing to Stan’s hidden shallows. Toni Collette and Ron Perlman are better, if underused, while Mara conveys damaged innocence with subtle, heartbreaking restraint. Meanwhile, Blanchett evokes the coiled power of a vamp-ish Dr. Lecter, recognizing that a film so lavishly dressed needs no-holds-barred performances to match. 

If Ritter’s characterization suggests a love letter to classic noir, so does the hyper-expressive production design. After the carnival’s luridly squalid House of Damnation set-piece, the sense of over-staged show in Ritter’s queasily lush office teases at a theme of analysis and mentalism being “rackets” alike. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s impressive images stage battles between light and shade, the former born to lose. 

Set to Nathan Johnson’s ominous wonky-baroque score, the effect hits a crimson-splashed peak in a snow-cold climax of deceitful brutality, where del Toro’s inner gore-hound roars. Even if faintly baggy plotting muffles the afterword’s sting, that’s a minor quibble. Cruel and elegant, del Toro’s nightmares remain worlds apart from the pack.

Nightmare Alley is in cinemas now. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way this year.

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Freelance writer

Kevin Harley is a freelance journalist with bylines at Total Film, Radio Times, The List, and others, specializing in film and music coverage. He can most commonly be found writing movie reviews and previews at GamesRadar+.