Cast: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman and David Strathairn
Written by Guillermo Del Toro, William Lindsey Gresham (Adapted from the novel by) and Kim Morgan
After a Best Picture winner, a cult classic fairytale retelling, as well as a few action movies, Guillermo Del Toro has firmly established himself within Hollywood as a great storyteller. Each of his films delve completely into the setting and history of the environment they play out in, and ‘Nightmare Alley’ is no different. In the film, a young man establishes himself amongst all the intriguing going-on’s of a local travelling circus, becoming further and further embroiled in trouble of his own making.
Bradley Cooper leads the film as a mysterious and unpredictable character. His simple introduction tells us everything we need to know, and nothing at all. For the first twenty or so minutes, his character of Stanton Carlisle seems content to sit back and let others run around him, barely saying a word. His apparent satisfaction from remaining quiet shows his intelligence, and understanding of how words can be manipulated – a key skill needed for his mystical future employment as a psychic. Cooper is excellent as the leading role, and, combined with his recent appearance in ‘Licorice Pizza’, is showing the world that he’s a brilliantly versatile actor who can deeply involve himself in any role he plays. You’re never quite sure what to make of him, and even in moments of sincerity, there’s an underlying feeling of manipulation that provides an intriguing extra layer to his performance.
Of course, with a cast to rival that of a Wes Anderson film (well, perhaps not quite that good), it would be a shame to not highlight some of the other performances on display. Toni Collette delivers as excellently as always as the charming and warm Madame Zeena, a supposedly mystic character who knows when her act has gone too far. However, the real stand out supporting character falls on the shoulders of David Strathairn, the alcoholic husband of Zeena. His early relationship with Stanton allows the story to consider the ethics behind the tricks conjured upon the circus stage, as well as what the young man should do with his ability to seemingly manipulate others using only a few words. Scenes between the two are completely engaging, as we watch their apprentice-teacher relationship experience its fair share of high and low points.
Aesthetically, ‘Nightmare Alley’ brings to life the magic of the circus. Not entirely sure what you’re seeing, but unable to turn away, the bright lights of travelling entertainment draws in crowds just as much as it does the audience, and by allowing us a look behind the curtain, Del Toro is able to deliver some really intriguing scenes. The film is very much composed of two parts. The first, showing the hidden secrets of a 1940’s circus, visually contrasts with the high society setting of the film’s later action, whilst establishing through characters and dialogue an idea that in neither location is everything as it seems. Vague references to political powers and key historical events not only establishes a clear setting, but considers the ideas of the film’s fictional story within a real, historical context.
With a runtime of two-and-a-half hours, I can’t deny that you do begin to feel the length towards the later half of the film. However, the detail that Del Toro applies to every scene consistently keeps your attention, and strengthens the moments which are already exciting or intriguing. Just like many of his other films, ‘Nightmare Alley’ feels as if it came straight from a storybook that a parent would never want their child to read.