The Kontenders: Stepping behind the curtain of “Nightmare Alley”

Step right up. Step right up, see sights the likes of which you’ve never seen before.

Do you dare venture into the world of the unknown, a world of geeks, freaks, and madmen? See beggars turn into kings, men turn into animals, love bloom, and combat the cruel hand of temptation and lust. Do you dare challenge your own eyes, your perception of what is time-tested skill, and what are exotic forces beyond that of mortal men? All of this and more you will see as you step inside the latest masterpiece of genre maestro Guillermo del Toro, Nightmare Alley.

Nightmare Alley follows Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a drifter who picks up a gig as a mentalist at a sketchy traveling carnival. He reaches for greater heights as he develops his skills and sees how far his newfound power can take him. The original book, written by William Lindsay Gresham, was previously adapted in 1947 by Edmund Goulding. He used the source material to create one of the raciest and most horrifying noirs of the ’40s. In his imaginative style, Guillermo del Toro embraces William Gresham’s world by injecting new life into its world. The carnival is equally grotesque as it is gorgeous, with rides and exhibits that you could easily get lost in and explore. At times, del Toro himself feels tempted to traverse in its twisted domain, shamelessly lingering on set pieces and performances within his cavalcade of performers. Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Toni Collette are all having tremendous fun as the various carnies, aided by a disturbing and terrifying performance by Paul Anderson as the  geek. It’s easy to see how people can lose themselves in this carnival and have their very humanity stripped away. At times, del Toro spends a little too much time exploring the carnival, to the point where it does disrupt the pacing and makes the film feel a little slow, but I still enjoyed myself thanks to del Toro’s wondrous creativity.

I admittedly felt sad when we do leave the carnival, but del Toro’s 1940’s production design quickly won me over, as it’s as gorgeous and luscious. As Stan’s passions grow, so does del Toro’s ambition with his direction, as his world feels extravagant and wondrous but hides a dark edge. It feels like you could wander anywhere in del Toro’s ’40s and get caught up in some trouble. That trouble rears its head through the introduction of Stan’s eventual compatriot, Lilith, played to perfection by the devilishly bewitching Cate Blanchett.

Throughout the film, Bradley Cooper gives an excellent performance as Stan in a unique way. For most of the beginning, he doesn’t talk. For about the first 8-10 minutes of the film, Stan doesn’t utter more than a couple of words of dialogue. Still, Cooper expresses all the characterization and personality he needs without needing dialogue. He’s observant, adaptable, and patient, all necessary traits to play a shifty and successful mentalist. I’m always impressed when a character’s personality is shown through the actor’s performance rather than relying on expository dialogue.

Of the performances in the film, the only one that felt slightly weak was Rooney Mara as Molly, the electric girl. She’s Stan’s love interest, who’s meant to be quiet and shy, resigned to her fate in the carnival. She came off as reserved as the character is supposed to be, but she didn’t balance it with a strong character or personality to make her character engaging. She felt like a non-entity standing next to the strong personalities around her. It doesn’t help that she disappears for a large portion of the movie’s center. I know Rooney Mara is a great actor, so maybe she needed a different type of direction to bring the personality out of her quiet performance.

Nightmare Alley is a fun carnival ride of a film. Bursting with a gorgeous production design and compelling characters, any fan of del Toro’s work will not be disappointed. Fans of the original may be thrown off by the pacing but sucked back by del Toro’s magic touch and commitment to the source material. This holiday season, do yourself a favor and step inside del Toro’s Nightmare Alley.

Nightmare Alley is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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