Nightmare Alley

Ever the visionary storyteller, Guillermo del Toro, steps a bit outside his comfort zone and journeys into the world of noir fiction with his latest film, Nightmare Alley, the heart-wrenching story of a man who sells his soul for the art of the con.

"It’s dark, it’s bloody, and it’s visceral. But above all else, it’s just beautiful"

The film, an adaptation of William Lindsey Gresham’s fatalistic 1946 novel of the same name which was previously adapted by Edmund Goulding a year later, provides the perfect stomping ground for del Toro‘s love of exploring the murky lines between illusion and reality. And boy, does he deliver with a rich and gooey atmospheric tale that has lots of things to say about karma, betrayal, and the dark side of American capitalism.

Though Nightmare Alley is certainly stylistically different from most of his films, there’s a much-welcomed familiarity with a magical atmosphere and fantastical elements that immediately identify it as a del Toro film. The cinematography of frequent collaborator Dan Laustsen can also be thanked for that. It’s dark, it’s bloody, and it’s visceral. But above all else, it’s just beautiful.

Set in the months leading up to the Second World War, Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper – who also produces – as Stanton Carlisle a man whose undiscovered penchant for showmanship and reading the room eventually catches the eye of Clem Hoatley (Willem Defoe), the owner of a trashy traveling carnival who gives Stanton a job as laborer.

It’s not long before Stanton has moved up the ranks and finds himself fascinated by the mentalist act of Zeena (Toni Collette, Hereditary) and her much older drunken husband, Pete (David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck). As a child, Stanton endured the tragedy of a troubled childhood in which he learned that ruthlessness, not love, is what makes a person get ahead in the world, so he’s a natural to join Zeena and Pete in their act of deception that bilks carnival goers out of their hard-earned dollars.

Stanton is a difficult character to pull off, but as expected, Cooper is up to the task with a performance that perfectly rides that razor-sharp line between sinister and likable. His Stanton is one of the most despicable of human beings, but here we are… rooting for him. His performance is that good here.Nightmare Alley

It’s not long before Stanton’s talents are much too big for the low-rent carnival and its penny ante attractions, so he snatches up fellow carny, Molly (Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), and the two take their successful mentalist act to the big city lights of Chicago.

Greed, ego, and uncontrolled ambition begin to erode away at their little empire, when Stanton grows cold with Molly and eventually meets psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) as the pair hatch an ambitious plan to fleece the rich and mighty of Chicago’s elite by pretending that Stanton can speak to their dead loved ones. Will they flourish, or will Stanton’s true nature face a huge comeuppance?

With a two-and-a-half hour runtime, the film is about a half hour too long with several lengthy segments that could have used some serious editing. But as expected, a large part of Nightmare Alley’s success is due to del Toro’s brilliant storytelling skills, and his visual craftsmanship, as well as his ability to seamlessly pivot into a new genre while crafting a hard-boiled tale of crime and betrayal that runs the gamut of emotions. However, equally up to the task is his ensemble supporting cast consisting of Mary Steengurgen, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Tim Blake Nelson and others.

With Nightmare Alley, the age-old question of nature vs. nurture seems to have been answered… and you may not like the answer.

4/5 stars

Film Details

nightmare alley poster

MPAA Rating: R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language.
150 mins
: Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan
Bradley Cooper; Cate Blanchett; Toni Collette
: Crime | Horror | Noir

Memorable Movie Quote: "Come on in and find out. Is he a man... or beast?"
Theatrical Distributor:
Searchlight Pictures
Official Site:
Release Date:
December 17, 2022
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:

Synopsis: An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.


nightmare alley poster