In the late 1930s, a mysterious drifter (Bradley Cooper), who we meet in the first scene placing a body beneath the floorboards and then setting an old farmhouse ablaze, wanders into the dark shadows of a traveling carnival. There he finds a makeshift home and family amongst fellow grifters and dreamers. But as both the grifts and the dreams get bigger, the troubled souls of those involved cast long shadows and set our protagonist down a perilous path into a living nightmare.
With set designs, costumes, and stylized acting completely transportive, including snippets of hard-boiled dialogue often delivered with delectably deadpan deliveries, I would’ve thought Nightmare Alley was made in the time period in which it takes place had it not been for the color and signature Del Toro grotesqueries. I sat there watching it both curious and enthralled…just who was this movie made for? And as I reveled in the slow-burn car wreck of a morality play, I realized, it’s me. This movie was made for me.
Nightmare Alley is a new adaptation of the novel that inspired the 1947 film of the same name that most modern audiences (even those like me who are fans of classic noir films) are not familiar with. When previews first announced its coming arrival, they played up the pedigree of director Guillermo Del Toro, making it look like a horror/monster movie in his typical mode. This likely confused his fans when they found out it was more of a traditional noir film.
Released in December at the height of the crippling Omicron wave of the pandemic, the film was met with mostly positive reviews from critics but crickets in the theaters. Its target audience (fans of the show Carnivale and/or Hitchcock, as well as older folks who grew up watching movies like the original) weren’t going to theaters any time soon…to see anything. Had it been released pre-pandemic, in the fall movie season, it likely would’ve struggled to find an audience, too, but word of mouth and awards buzz may have had room to build. Streaming now on HBO Max, I hope it finds the audience that will appreciate it.
There is much to enjoy here for those on the right wavelength. This is one of the few modern attempts at reviving classic noir that finds the right balance between playing it deathly straight while allowing certain elements to go organically over-the-top. About halfway through the film, Cate Blanchett shows up as an icy-faced, cold-souled, hot-blooded psychiatrist who ups the ante of the con games to dangerous heights. Blanchett is perfect in full-on classic-era movie-star mode, and she doesn’t chew the scenery, but instead sets it on fire while chilling you to the bone.
The unnerving morality play aspects of the story come full circle in the film’s coda after a horribly botched grift that leaves multiple dead bodies in its wake. The last damning line is brilliantly delivered by Cooper followed by a quick fade to black.
Nightmare Alley stands tall as one of my favorite films from 2021. It’s by far my favorite film Del Toro has ever made. It will be interesting to see what happens to its reputation years down the road. It has all the makings of becoming Del Toro’s overlooked masterpiece. But if you love this type of stuff, like I do, I recommend you not wait until then. See it now.