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‘Nightmare Alley’ review: Sleight of hand, empty trick

Jason Tan Liwag
‘Nightmare Alley’ review: Sleight of hand, empty trick
Guillermo del Toro’s 'Nightmare Alley' is a beautiful work that checks all the boxes of noir but remains surprisingly gritless and empty

Nightmare Alley promised it was different. In the last few years, noir has, as critic Angelica Jade Bastien succinctly put, “atrophied.” With more people leaning into its cliché black-and-white aesthetics and ultraviolence, that which makes noir truly great — its deep insight into politics and its capacity to reflect and challenge the dominant cultures of power — had been largely absent or obscured in recent work. But then Guillermo del Toro arrived with a metaphorical defibrillator for genre — a retelling of the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, one which has been previously adapted into a film now widely regarded as a classic in noir. In a world now driven by the same film franchises telling the same stories in different packaging, this was a sign of hope.

There is little reason to distrust Del Toro’s creative decisions. Even prior to his Academy Award wins, Del Toro has shown himself to be a champion of cinema: his massive film collection pales in comparison to his knowledge and love of film and its history. Well-respected within the community, his praises for other films (Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story) have pushed audiences to watch, cinephiles to reassess, and award-giving bodies to reconsider. As a filmmaker, Del Toro’s understanding of genre conventions — how to operate within them, subvert them, and repurpose them — has resulted in some of the most entertaining and culturally impactful work in the last decade: from artful comic book blockbusters in Blade II and Hellboy to affecting reimaginings of the mythic in Pan’s Labyrinth and Shape of Water.

Del Toro’s prior work has always delved into the world of the fantastical — unearthing the humanity in the monstrous and the monstrous in humanity, creating deeply moving political allegories that reflect the milieu they are situated in. Nightmare Alley was a considerable departure yet a logical one: no more monsters, only men who behaved like them. Given the looser censorship compared to the 1940s and the increasing wealth gap in America today, reviving the story seemed timely and necessary.

It is therefore surprising that the final product is strangely aseptic: admirable in its scale and beauty, but also spoiled by the carefulness in the curation; lacking the grit and narrative heft one may expect in a psychological thriller. In an interview with David Jenkins from Little White Lies, Del Toro described noir as “the poetry of disillusionment and existentialism.” But even though he satisfies the genre expectations like a checklist, one cannot help but feel like Nightmare Alley misses the mark.

It doesn’t start out this way. Set in the Great Depression, Nightmare Alley follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man with a troubled past he desperately tries to evade, as he chances upon a traveling carnival. After helping the carnival owner Clem (Willem Dafoe) locate the carnival’s “geek” — a disheveled shell-of-a-man who serves as one of the main attractions by eating live chickens for the crowd’s entertainment — he begins working as an assistant to clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her drunken husband Pete (David Strathairn). But after an accident puts him in possession of Pete and Zeena’s secret book of tricks, he runs away from the carnival with Molly (Rooney Mara) to become a rich and powerful mentalist in New York. As his star continues to rise, he attracts the attention of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blachett) and her wealthy clientele, the latter expecting that Carlisle connect them with their dead loved ones. Despite warnings from Zeena and Molly, Carlisle and Ritter work together to scam the elite, to devastating consequences.

Del Toro’s noir is rooted in “American realism” and the tensions between “the haves and the have-nots.” It is a given that money, especially in such a fraught socioeconomic era, is a gateway to some form of liberation or escape for the downtrodden and its latter half looks at these rifts in society. While the rich and powerful can assuage their guilt and shame through money, covert violence, and falsehoods, the poor are forced to live with it. Such desire for emancipation can be a source for Carlisle’s continued thirst for money and power, but whatever is put on screen registers as padding rather than motivation.

It doesn’t help that the cast itself seems to be on autopilot. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, seemingly pulled out of Carol, rehash straight versions of their roles, losing the chemistry and the edge that made them interesting, their beauty appealing but in clinical ways. Particularly, Blanchett’s Ritter seems to skim the surface of the femme fatale, a role crucial to the success of the genre (see Gone Girl by David Fincher). Bradley Cooper, stunning as he may be, fails to weaponize his good looks and sex appeal, his attractiveness a dull blade when the scene needs it to be a sharp knife. Only when his beauty is stripped away in the end is he effective, even gut-wrenching. Only Willem Dafoe and Richard Jenkins (as Ezra Grindle) seem to understand the assignment.

The best parts of the film are its first and final minutes, carefully looping the narrative into a satisfying circle to highlight the self-destructive path of the protagonist, one which answers his evasion by placing him back where he started to confront his inner demons. But the evocative beginning is also the film’s downfall. In Bastien’s essay and in essayist Otto Penzler and James Ellroy’s writing in the book The Best American Noir of the Century, they argue that what characterizes a noir is the central character’s downward spiral, punishing ambition and destroying the American dream by exposing the faulty ladders that support it.

But because Nightmare Alley begins at the bottom of the moral pit — as we see him drag a dead body across the ground, bury it in a makeshift grave, and light it and the house on fire — the character has little left to sink deeper, decreasing thes stakes of the film and making the final descent unsatisfying, if not out of place. But more than these, Carlisle’s failures throughout are relegated as “accidents” and the damnation that results in his downfall seem less by his own design.

Still, the film looks beautiful. The production design and cinematography collectively create an oppressive atmosphere, shadows casting doubt in each frame and each character, the recurring circles alerting the audience to the circular nature of the story long before the end is in sight, some of it so heavy-handed with exposition that it becomes sickening. One can’t help but wonder why the images fail to stick or if the film would be far more effective in black-and-white.

Nightmare Alley is a film that fares better when recollected than when experienced, especially as the thematic and narrative pieces begin to settle with the dust. I tried to like this, I really did. But everything in between is surprisingly soulless: a thriller without thrills – all sleight of hand, empty trick. –

Nightmare Alley is available for streaming via HBO Max and Hulu.

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Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.