Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro’s new film is a good neo-noir that borrows from thriller, but lacks a bit of dynamism

If there’s something we have understood about Guillermo del Toro, is that he is brave: his films leave an impression due to his talent to mix diametrically opposite genres such as fairy tale and horror or thriller and fantasy.

His fans go to cinema thinking of titles like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water (which earned him four Oscars) and that’s why the expectations for Nightmare Alley, are high even if, based on the preview, his new film might not please everyone. Let’s go to the details.

We are talking about a film with a well-packaged trailer and that features a cast that is worth a visit to theater: Bradley Cooper, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. The story is intriguing and familiar to some cinema-geeks: Nightmare Alley, indeed, is the adaptation of a novel by William Lindsay Gresham, which director Edmund Goulding brought to the big screen in 1947.

Guillermo del Toro’s version, of course, is a potpourri for contemporary tastes: a neo-noir film mixed with thriller, which borrows elements from fantasy and horror.

Nightmare Alley is set in the late 1930s and the protagonist is Stan Carlisle, a carny with a dark past and a natural talent for manipulating people. Newest member of a traveling fair of geek and magic shows, Stan first wins the trust of its ruthless owner Clem and then seduces the two “spearheads” of the fair: the charming psychic Zeena and the young illusionist Molly. Learned the tricks of the trade and tired of the meager earnings, Stan declares his love to Molly and the two leave the fair to start their own business. The man, however, is very ambitious: as he understands that lies can make him rich, he decides to go for bigger ones by devoting himself to spiritism, which allows him to take advantage of his audience’s feelings. Molly stands in the way of the idea, but she tries to support him for some time. Everything changes when the couple meets Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist who immediately unveils the scam. While Molly meditates on her relationship, Stan recruits Lilith as his accomplice: the two start an affair and a partnership that will bear its fruit, but also brings terrible consequences.

Scenography and cast are the strengths of the film: from the very first minutes, the Mexican director immerses viewers in a disturbing but hypnotic world, made up of old objects, amusement park attractions and gimmicks of various kinds. Bradley Cooper, who plays Stan, is a mysterious and credible character: he seduces all the women in the film (Zeena-Toni Collette, Molly-Rooney Mara and Lilith-Cate Blanchett) and “gets his hands dirty” to achieve his goals, thinking too little about the limits of his fraud.

If there’s a flaw in Nightmare Alley is that it creates a never ending wait for something to happen: you expect it behind every closed door and every hidden hatch, but everything goes back to normal, to be revealed only at the end of the film and without a real climax. Despite being a neo-noir, Nightmare Alley borrows a lot from thriller and, for this reason, it is not very dynamic. However, it remains a must-see film, for the performances of the actors and for the unique atmospheres that Guillermo del Toro always manages to create.

Nightmare Alley is distributed by Searchlight Pictures and hits Italian cinemas on January 27, 2022.


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