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Nightmare Alley review - a dazzling trip through a heart of darkness | reviews, news & interviews

Nightmare Alley review - a dazzling trip through a heart of darkness

Nightmare Alley review - a dazzling trip through a heart of darkness

Bradley Cooper shines in Guillermo del Toro's lurid pulp fiction

Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) and Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper)

Director Guillermo del Toro has described Nightmare Alley as “a straight, really dark story”, lacking the supernatural elements in his previous films such as Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water. Nonetheless, Nightmare Alley still feels like a spectral visitation from a weird and menacing dimension.

Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham (previously filmed in 1947 starring Tyrone Power), it’s the story of ambitious carnival worker Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who we see in the opening sequence setting fire to what we will learn was his own home in the Midwest. At first he’s a silent, peripheral figure, who turns up at a travelling carnival and hangs around until he’s offered a lowly and miserably-paid labourer’s job. It’s the late 1930s, and the America pungently depicted here is still lost in the purgatory of the Great Depression.

But gradually it transpires that Stan has a gift for soaking up information and is a brilliant opportunist. He gets friendly with the clairvoyant Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her drink-sodden husband Pete (a raddled David Strathairn), and from them picks up the techniques of spotting tells and reading body-language which allow him to convince punters he can read their minds. He demonstrates what he’s learned to potent effect when he uses it on Sheriff Jedediah Judd, distracting him from his mission to crack down on the abuses against people and animals being perpetrated by the carnival crew. The grotesque “geek” kept in a cage by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafore, pictured above), kept starved and drugged and fed on the occasional live chicken for the punters’ amusement, is the carnival’s flagship monstrosity.

The scale of Stan’s true ambitions, and how far he’ll go to achieve them, begin to be revealed after he starts a relationship with Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) and persuades her to leave the carnival and start a double act with him. The timeline spins ahead, to reveal a polished, smart-suited Stan performing his mind-reading act to well-heeled audiences in New York's ornate art-deco salons. However, an intervention from audience member Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, pictured below), challenging Stan to prove his clairvoyant credentials, dramatically steps up the tempo. The cool and brass-necked Stan is equal to the challenge, but this is the moment when he steps onto Fate’s relentless elevator. Lilith, a psychologist by trade, is also a seductress par excellence, with a blonde and brilliant Blanchett channeling noir icons like Barbara Stanwyck or Lauren Bacall in her hypnotic portrayal of a fatally cool manipulatrix.

The story is pulpy and luridly sensational, but that doesn’t mean it can’t deliver some piercing insights into the darkest corners of the psyche. As Stan finds himself embroiled in increasingly murky schemes, the more the tide of human misery rises around him. Pete warned him not to con audiences with “spook shows” where they supposedly contact the dead, but when he meets Judge Kimball and his wife, crushed by the death of their son, Stan finds himself being led into temptation. When he encounters the powerful and depraved tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), you have to figure that no good is going to come of it.

At two and a half hours, Nightmare Alley could have used a trim here and there, but once you get sucked into the narrative it’s a wild ride, like a ghost train screeching through a graveyard of lost souls. The design and colour palette are intoxicating, while del Toro has extracted fine performances across the board from his impressive cast. Cooper’s portrayal of Stan, gradually revealing layers of his character stretching both forwards and backwards in time, is surely his most powerful work to date. It’s a movie liable to reward multiple viewings.

It’s a wild ride, like a ghost train screeching through a graveyard of lost souls


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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