Nightmare Alley (Review): A Memorable and Unnerving Experience

Disturbing, deceptive, and decently original– Nightmare Alley was an unexpectedly awesome surprise for me. Read on for more in-depth opinions…

Carnivals are joyous places where talented performers craft mystifying feats of entertainment. But they’re also an environment which can hide moral depravity under the guise of said “entertainment”. Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a newcomer to the carnie lifestyle. He is disturbed by some of their acts: namely by the “Geek” show: AKA some poor soul forced to suck the blood from chickens, and fascinated by others: namely, a mentalism routine which he learns to emulate. The later act comes with a dangerous price, which Stan is willing to face for the glory it will bring him…

Nightmare Alley begins with a fantastic opener! We fade from black to watch Stan drag somebody’s body across a wooden floor, toss said body into a dugout, and set the house ablaze. I was hooked instantly. Right away NA offered a number of questions which I genuinely wanted answered. And it effectively maintained my interest from there.

What also caught my attention in this moment: Nightmare Alley forwent the use of opening credits over the preceding description. There’s no build-up, or any establishment of time or place. NA jumps right into its plot and expects us to keep up. That’s a bold move which I respect.

Nightmare Alley is the rare film for which I had no prior expectations! I hadn’t seen so much as a synopsis before my viewing. And having no clue what was in store made the journey more enticing. It’s usually more fun to watch films this way if possible. Of course I’d like you to keep reading this review, and I’m not gonna spoil anything, but still…

Stan Carlisle’s motivations are unclear for most of the film. Maybe this is something I could criticize, but I think this decision was intentional. We’re meant to guess who Stan really was and what he sought to accomplish within the carnival.

Nightmare Alley spoon-feeds us information about Stan’s life. And each new piece of information about Stan’s past leads us to re-contextualize his present. We don’t clearly see Stanton Carlisle for who he truly is till the ending. It may seem to some like his character changed over time. I don’t think he changed a bit from start to finish. He only had new opportunities to show off his personality.

Bradley Cooper brings layers to this character, who may otherwise seem one-dimensional. The man is a master manipulator of people’s feelings, so it’s hard to know what he’s really thinking in most scenes. Yet Cooper’s subtle performance allows us to peel back Carlisle’s persona upon closer examination. Stanton is a mostly stoic and guarded man on the surface. But within him hides a largely contained rage and bitterness (which Cooper lets loose in key moments). He’s afraid of his emotions and what he may be capable of without constant self-control.

The other stand-out cast member is Cate Blanchet as Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchet). She’s a most unethical psychologist who aids Stan’s mentalism act by giving out people’s personal information for a cut of Stan’s profits. Ritter is scary because, like Stan, she’s a composed person on the surface who barely conceals her darkest self. The motivations for her actions in this film are maybe the most disturbing aspect of this whole movie!

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley
ph: Kerry Hayes / Searchlight Pictures

I’ll also give a shout-out to Willem Dafoe’s “Clem” Hoatley. The character doesn’t have much to do, but Dafoe gives a great deal of personality to the role. He’s seems an unscrupulous man, though he’s not without some mercy.

He’s the first character in Nightmare Alley to showcase one of the movie’s major themes, which questions if people can do bad things for “right” reasons. But what is a “right” reason? Multiple characters bring joy to many (including themselves– like Clem, Stan, and Ritter) at the expense of the few. That’s not “right” per se but it can be justified. Yet the alternative seems to be those who bring joy to others at the expense of their own well-being. The later seems more noble but is less desirable for those whom it concerns.

Hammering this point home further are the characters Zeena and Peter (Toni Collette and David Strathairn): a humble middle-aged couple who perform their mentalism act at the carnival. I imagine they used to be a well-oiled team before Peter’s alcoholism threatened their show. Stan maintains a close relationship to them both while he learns their secrets.

Each of them were compelling characters, well portrayed by their actors. But I was notably interested in Peter because of his history. He’s a sad, broken man who seems like he failed to live up to his potential. His gifts also proved to be a curse. And I was curious to see how or if this curse would pass on to Stan along with the knowledge. That’s certainly what they implied MIGHT happen.

NA dishes heaping helpings of foreshadowing throughout the film. Much of it is well-planted too! It was rewarding to notice how seemingly unrelated moments or visuals connected to the movie’s conclusion. And I probably missed a lot of them on first viewing! So Nightmare Alley wins big points for its high ratio of setups to pay-offs. Every plot clicked neatly into place by NA’s third act.

SIDE NOTE: Has modern cinema dropped to such a low level that the very idea of payoff seems like something to celebrate? Yes. Yes it has…

But what an ending NA has! No exaggeration: Nightmare Alley contains the best conclusion to a film (I’ve seen) in a LONG time. I don’t mean to over-hype it or anything. But I just really enjoyed where the story ended up.

Nightmare Alley’s atmosphere is generally unsettling. That shouldn’t be surprising though, as Guillermo del Toro excels at crafting disturbing locales and characters. Some of the imagery here stayed imprinted within my mind long after I left the theatre. For example: seeing “Clem”’s pickled babies on display is a sight from which I have yet to recover.

Bolstering the above was the film’s set design, which was incredible! With a title like Nightmare Alley, you’d hope for some memorable places. My personal favourites were the fun house from act 1, the various stages at the carnival, and Doctor Ritter’s office.

And there’s multiple moments of shocking violence! Normally gore doesn’t phase me because I’m mentally prepared for it in advance. But, because most of the film is relatively tame, the violence hits harder.

Good as the film was to start, Dan Laustsen’s cinematography elevates the final product. Nightmare Alley is a visual treat! Somehow its shots have more visual depth than other movies. It felt more three-dimensional without actually being 3-D. And its dark colors popped more than in other films. It was beautiful.

Cam McLauchlin’s editing also deserves praise. He allowed this story to be told (mainly) through long shots. By that I mean: it’s refreshing to SEE sets and locations for lengthier periods and get our bearings in a location. McLauchlin didn’t cut a ridiculous amount of times to artificially speed up the film’s pace. He just let the film exist in its ideal form. So thank you Mr McLauchlin!

As for criticisms: I have none per se. I believe it comes down to personal preference. And I just didn’t love this one, as much as I can see it’s technically well-made.

Nightmare Alley is different to the kind of movies I usually see. But that’s a good thing. I’d like to see more weird stories like this on the big screen. It actually seemed like a feature-length Twilight Zone episode. Why don’t we get storytelling like that in movies much anymore? Well– ’cause people don’t show up for it, I guess… But I like this sorta thing and I’m glad I saw this one.

I’m pleased to report that Nightmare Alley is Pretty Darn Good!

Does this one deserve to be an Oscar contender? What did you think of Nightmare Alley? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *