Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is the second film adaptation of the 1946 novel by William Gresham – the first being 1947’s film starring Tyrone Power. This classic story has been resurrected with the help of an incredible cast and a visionary like del Toro at the helm.
The story follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a mysterious man on the run from something. He stumbles upon a traveling circus owned by Clem (Willem Dafoe). Clem gives Stan a job as a carny. Eventually, Stan works with a Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn) who performed for years as a mentalist. Pete begins teaching Stan about his tricks as a mentalist but warns him of doing “spook shows” that leads customers to believe they’re actually hearing from the dead.
After Pete dies tragically, Stan takes what he’s learned and goes on the road with Molly (Rooney Mara) and a reinvented act as “The Great Stanton” – the perfect act for wealthy people in the big city. Once Stan starts doing spook shows, things start to get out of control.
Nightmare Alley is a true remake, and not just in name. It’s a throwback to the film noir crime dramas that were popular in the 1940’s. The story isn’t complicated; there aren’t a ton of special effects or big action sequences. It’s a straightforward crime drama that builds on its character’s motivations and their problems.
The all-star cast is lead by Bradley Cooper. His dazzling performance is a reminder that he’s an A-list leading man. I know we’ve been use to hearing him as a wisecracking raccoon in the MCU, but Cooper can really carry a film when he needs to. It helps that he’s so believable as Stan. He carries the right amount of arrogance in the character to make his choices, good and bad, believable.
The film’s most surprising performance is Cate Blanchett as Dr. Ritter. Blanchett is incredible and feels like she was plucked directly out of a film from the 40’s. Like Cooper carries the early part of the film, Blanchett’s performance helps anchor the third act as things start to unravel.
With a 150 minute runtime, Nightmare Alley feels about 20 mins too long and that’s mostly because it gets off to a slow start. Once the story rolls into a third act, it’s becomes the type of thriller fans come to the theater to see.