NIGHTMARE ALLEY movie poster | ©2021 Searchlight Pictures

NIGHTMARE ALLEY movie poster | ©2021 Searchlight Pictures

Rating: R
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, David Strathairn, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, Holt McAllany, Mary Steenburgen, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver
Writers: Guillermo del Toro & Kim Morgan, based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Release Date: December 17, 2021

NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a beautifully-made, hypnotic Depression-era thriller. William Lindsay Gresham’s novel was previously adapted for the big screen in 1947, with Tyrone Power in the lead.

This time around, Bradley Cooper essays the role of Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, the antihero at the center of the proceedings. With director Guillermo del Toro at the helm, working from a script he co-wrote with Kim Morgan, this NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a lot weirder than its predecessor. The film doesn’t have the overt fantasy flourishes that accompany most of del Toro’s work, but it certainly has the darkness.

We meet Stan as he takes a job with a traveling carnival. Stan is good with drawing likenesses, and finds he has a gift for showmanship. He’s especially interested in the mentalist act performed by alcoholic Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn) and his young assistant Molly (Rooney Mara).

When Stan masters the art of persuading strangers that he really can communicate with their deceased loved ones, he aspires to the big time, with the attendant big rewards – and big dangers.

Del Toro revels in the carnival setting, with its handmade illusions and hints of something monstrous in the shadows. The production design by Tamara Deverell is period-perfect, while displaying del Toro’s idiosyncratic sense of style.

When NIGHTMARE ALLEY moves into the big-money big city, the film’s look becomes more elegant and icier. This is epitomized in a psychiatrist played by Cate Blanchett, who has the look of a ‘50s screen goddess, and the cool enigma of an irresistible high-class femme fatale.

Blanchett is a force to be reckoned with here, and the supporting cast is outstanding, especially Strathairn as the kindly lost soul who inspires Stan. Mara makes the most of the doubting but loyal lover role. Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Holt McAllany, Mary Steenburgen, Jim Beaver, and Tim Blake Nelson all do sterling work.

Cooper is extremely good, but there is something ever so slightly out of sync between his performance and the material. Stan thinks he is smarter and a better planner than he is, but there’s a little too much stability in Cooper’s manner. Given the twists of the plot, it seems like Stan ought to feel a little slyer, a little more mercurial, than just straightforwardly ambitious.

The storytelling is engrossing. There are a few hints that suggest at where we’re going, but we’re involved with every unpredictable step of the journey. There are details that pack a punch, both in the present and in flashbacks, and the end is well-earned.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY has a few deficits, but on the whole, it is top-flight filmmaking that holds our attention throughout.

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