Nightmare Alley is a film about deception. Manipulation. Illusion. The blurred lines between the truth and the lie. Staged in 1940’s New York, down-on-his-luck Stanley Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds himself working for a sideshow circus. He befriends a clairvoyant (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband (David Stratham) and begins to learn their trade – which is telling people fortunes and perhaps speaking to a ghost here and there.
Stanley falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara) and, after Stanley perfects his act, they move on from the sideshow and move to the NYC where Stanley uses what he learned to create an act that makes him rich. Molly is part of the act, but after two years of fooling people, she has grown tired of her life and misses her old friends. This creates distance between her and Stanley.
Enter Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She is a psychologist and sees through Stanley’s ruse. The two begin a relationship and Lilith earns his trust. Stanley, made greedy by his successes, agrees to con a rich tycoon with the help of Lilith. Molly wants nothing to do with the swindle, as it involves dressing as a dead woman. She realizes that Stanley has no redeemable qualities. A sad end to a sadder relationship as Stanley only used her as part of his act.
As the third act progresses, lines are blurred as to who is swindling who. Which is the con artist, Lilith or Stanley? Or are they both? And the tycoon – a way more dangerous man than Stanley ever thought possible.
Nighmare Alley, though long at over two hours, is a fast moving film that barely allows you room to think what is real and what is illusion. Guillermo Del Toro directs a beautiful film with lavish sets and an engrossing story. He never really lets you believe that Stanley is a good man (he isn’t), but allows room for hope that he might choose Molly over the lie.
This film has a stellar cast, and Del Toro doesn’t waste a second with them. He brings out Rooney Mara’s vulnerability, and Toni Collette and Cate Blanchett’s charisma. He uses Bradley Cooper’s ability to be characters that are both likable and unlikable at the same time to his advantage. Someone you want to root for, but know you can’t because something isn’t quite right about him.
As a whole, it is equal parts art deco period piece, thriller, and psychological drama. A humanized carnie here, a sympathetic carnie there. There isn’t much horror, but that’s okay. It isn’t needed here, even if horror is Del Toro’s speciality.
I highly recommend this film. One of my favorites of 2021.