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Movie Review: Nightmare Alley

R 2h 30m

By Jason Koenigsberg

Guillermo del Toro’s follow up to his Academy Award winning The Shape of Water (2017) has finally arrived and sadly it was not worth the four year wait. This is one of the visionary directors most disappointing efforts in a very long time. He chose to remake a 1947 film that he obviously had a great affinity for as a child and the themes clearly resonated with him and influenced a lot of the pictures he has written and directed. Unfortunately, Nightmare Alley suffers from the same trend many other films of 2021 suffer from, it feels way too long, and in this case it is unnecessarily long. The opening shot is a man dragging a body while he smokes a cigarette and the shot reveals the man is Bradley Cooper as he dumps the body under the floorboards and sets the room on fire. Eventually the audience finds out who the body is but not until much later.

Nightmare Alley is not without its merits one of the biggest being the lead performance from Bradley Cooper. He carries most of the film and the talented supporting cast does what they can with the material. This is the biggest cast Guillermo del Toro has ever assembled. I guess that is what happens after you win the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. Everyone wants to work with you and Bradley Cooper is joined by Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, and Guillermo del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman who, to the best of my knowledge, has been in every one of his English language pictures other than Mimic (1997). Cooper plays a drifter who after disposing of a body and burning down a building wanders into a carnival in a rural town in the Depression era just before the US joins World War II. He befriends a few of the sideshow attractions, gets the hang of grifting people as part of the carny culture, falls in love with Rooney Mara’s character and eventually they flee the low budget circus and start grifting people on their own including a doctor played by Cate Blanchett and a wealthy businessman played by Richard Jenkins.

Another impressive aspect of Nightmare Alley is the cinematography which looks very similar to Guillermo del Toro’s previous films. It contains beautiful colors that stand out on a primarily dark palette. Where Nightmare Alley fails the most are the dialogue scenes that drive the narrative. Ironic considering the talented actors on screen. Usually his movies deal with monsters and humans that end up being more evil than the monsters. This time the humans are so bland and the dialogue so banal that there are no characters that stand as the epitome of righteousness or are particularly vile. Everything about Nightmare Alley wreaks of mediocrity. Although the exception to that would be Bradley Cooper who really gets to show off his acting chops. The final scene and in particular the final shot of Bradley Cooper turns out to be very emotionally revealing. However that is not enough to make up for a good solid two and a half hours that could have been better spent at home watching one of Guillermo del Toro’s superior works.

Skip Nightmare Alley and if you want to see a memorable movie about a circus sideshow check out Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).

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