Nightmare Alley

Review by Cathal Eustace

Nightmare Alley was fun, sexy and I liked it. However I only liked it– let me elaborate. This film will not be a classic but who can foretell the future– Regardless there’s nothing exceptionally strong in the narrative. You could watch the first 30 minutes of the film and predict the forthcoming plot easily, with a miniscule margin of error. Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) shares much in common with the likes of Icarus or Dr Faustus. As soon as we are introduced to Carlisle we know he’s doomed to fly too close to the sun. This isn’t achieved through clever preordination or allusions to Carlisle’s fate, you just know it’s going to happen. You’ve seen and felt these story beats before, you’ve watched this type of protagonist walk this path, and personally I gained no satisfaction from the realisation of my prophecies.

Narrative shortcomings aside, Nightmare Alley has some beautiful moments. Sweeping camera shots make you feel like you’re watching There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007). Del Toro’s cinematographer Dan Lausten has certainly had fun whilst shooting the treacherous streets of pre-WW2 America. Between mud soaked carnival stages or swanky big-city offices, Nightmare Alley features numerous gorgeous costumes and sets. Del Toro’s idiosyncratic grime-meets-gruesome-meets-camp style is ever present in Nightmare Alley. Baudy circus tents and ball rooms make for an excellent playground for the film’s star studded cast. Nightmare Alley has become another reason for me to celebrate Bradley Cooper’s versatility. Granted he has a penchant for Oscar-bait, however Stanton Carlisle’s silent yet devious demeanour, set against Cooper’s manic performance in the newly released Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021), or his lovesick bipolarity in Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012) gives us plenty of reason to think of Cooper as the best atypical leading man that Hollywood still feels it needs. 

Cooper aside; Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Ron Perlman, Willem Dafoe and more all carry their weight in Nightmare Alley. It’s not Licorice Pizza nor Silver Linings Playbook and I’m not going to watch it again, However Nightmare Alley is still an enjoyable enough experience to warrant an afternoon in the cinema and a few quid spent on popcorn and a ticket.

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