As Stanton Carlisle leaves an unidentified body and his family home going up in flames, Guillermo del Toro establishes that his latest noir is far from a straight adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel or Edmund Golding’s 1947 film. Stan (a never better Cooper) begins his carny days with a shady past in this retelling of Nightmare Alley, and del Toro cannily and seductively deconstructs the twin myths of American individualism and American exceptionalism – and the casual cruelties its practitioners feel entitled to – through Stan’s deceptions and descents. 

While the romantic entanglements Stan cultivates with Mara’s Molly, Colette’s Zeena, and Blanchette’s Dr Lilith Ritter are underdeveloped (some purposefully so – after all, the power of trickery can backfire on the trickster), Cooper is a suave everyman, convincing as a face beautiful enough to charm and bland enough to blend with the crowd. The standout supporting cast – especially Colette’s heartfelt clairvoyant and Perlman and Povinelli as the travelling show’s combined muscle and heart – enrich the world beyond the salaciousness of their occupation. 

The production design is the true standout, segmenting the film seamlessly. Stan’s flight and carnival life are shown through the lens of Andrew Wyeth and Grant Wood, muted browns and greens capturing the era’s American realist movement. This gives way to art deco chiaroscuro as Stan and Molly take their show to the city. These snow-filled nights continued into the last chapter’s rich blue lighting, becoming both ghost story and psychological thriller as the snow continues to fall. The film fires on all nasty cylinders as it ramps towards the inevitable climax; there is no catharsis, only sharp, lurid complicity. 

At 150 minutes, Nightmare Alley could do with tighter pacing. But when its world is so impeccably designed and lovingly enlivened, the journey into darkness is worth every second. 



CAST: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Colette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Pearlman, Richard Jenkins, Mark Povinelli 

DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro

WRITERS: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan

SYNOPSIS: Hustler Stanton Carlisle joins a travelling carnival and ingratiates himself in the clairvoyant act, but blurring fantasy and reality is too great a temptation.