Guillermo del Toro returns to the big screen with Nightmare Alley. The psychological thriller follows Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man down on his luck and ready to build himself back up. He believes the practice of mentalism is the way forward for his career and his life, but it does not come without risk – particularly when his next big scheme turns out to be a spook show.
The narrative is incredibly character-driven: there is very little that isn’t influenced directly by Carlisle. Every decision, every word that Carlisle speaks, decides how the story flows moving forward. As such, it isn’t easy to anticipate what might come next, as Nightmare Alley does not follow typical genre structures. This makes for a thrilling, suspense-filled and engrossing watch, where the full picture is only visible once the film is complete.
Cooper’s Carlisle is a fascinating character around which to centre all else, full of bravado and charm and dark secrets. Cooper plays the role with equal skill at different emotional points in life – from when he is full of optimism, bright ideas and confidence, to when his spirit is utterly broken.
The star-studded supporting cast is equally engaging. Performance standouts include Cate Blanchett as Dr Lilith Ritter, dark and twisted and just as charming; Rooney Mara’s Molly, sweet and hopeful but strong in every sense; and Willem Dafoe as Clem Hoatley, as callous as he is dangerous. When each are on scene, they are nothing but captivating.
This is a slow-burning thriller, starting with a mystery and building your connection to Carlisle before the second half throws itself into the downward spiral of the man’s own making. Within the genre, it stands alone, focused on an internal, personal struggle rather than an outside force exerting pressure on a given situation. That’s not to say that the other characters lack agency, only that Carlisle seems wilfully unaware of others’ behaviours and experiences. When something about a character’s past is revealed, or their true motive comes through, the audience feels as though their suspicions are confirmed; for Carlisle, it’s all a completely new revelation, leaving him vulnerable to what comes next.
Del Toro has always proven skilled in a thriller and, though this one is different, he tackles Nightmare Alley with his usually strange, crystal-clear vision. From the close-ups allowing the actors to share visceral emotion, to the Dutch angles that disorient the audience, each shot is intelligently chosen and allows the beauty of the set design to shine through. The final act, riding a crescendo of tension, is incredibly powerful; everything becomes increasingly frantic until it all crests to a sad, pitiful laugh that reminds us that in the end, Nightmare Alley is a tragedy.
Nightmare Alley is a wonderfully twisted thriller following the rise and fall of a charming man, who so believes in his own lies that he allows them to take over. It’s an entertaining watch complimented by fantastic acting from a well-established cast, and a clear vision from its director.
Nightmare Alley is in cinemas now.