Nightmare Alley Review: Guillermo del Toro’s Film Noir Reimagining Is A Captivating, Poisonous Throwback

Guillermo del Toro proves he doesn't need monsters to thrill his audience.

Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara on stage in Nightmare Alley.
(Image: © Searchlight Pictures)

The world knows writer/director Guillermo del Toro primarily as a purveyor of stories pertaining to monsters and the supernatural. After making a storied career through such projects, winning box office and awards season acclaim through movies like the Hellboy series and The Shape of Water, del Toro has arrived at a point where he can write his ticket to anywhere he wants to go. In this respect, watching Nightmare Alley will surprise some of his fans, as his reimagining of the 1946 novel doesn’t include any mythical creatures, and merely brushes against powers beyond the veil. To some, that journey may seem daunting; but to devoted fans of the filmmaker’s work, the new feature feels like a movie he’s been building towards for some time now. 

Much like director Edmund Goulding's adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel from 1947, the action in Nightmare Alley is focused on Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man who drifts into a traveling carnival show and comes out the other side with tricks up his sleeves an a means to rub elbows with high society. He achieves such heights thanks to being a gifted mentalist – a skill he hones with the help of a mentor (David Strathairn) he meets while touring with fellow performers. But as time goes on, and Stanton’s ambitions are stoked when meeting a psychiatrist who proves to be on his level (Cate Blanchett), the edge of Stanton’s “powers” draws ever closer, with deadly consequences looming ahead.

Nightmare Alley isn’t merely inspired by classic films; it embodies the very DNA of such movies.

Time and time again the neo-noir genre is a flavor that filmmakers attempt to nail, but regularly through one way or another seem to fall short of the mark. Guillermo del Toro’s efforts in Nightmare Alley succeed with flying colors because he and co-writer Kim Morgan truly understand what makes this sort of movie tick. Even in a modern, full-color context, you can practically see how fitting the exploits of these characters would be if they were shown in black and white. 

Period-appropriate lingo, spot-on costuming, and production design that harkens back to old Hollywood all accompany this tale of exploring when too much is too much. Without a proper, deeper understanding of why people love this classic style, all of those aspects would just be window dressing, but that's not Nightmare Alley. Though it also helps that just as del Toro and Morgan wonderfully register the nature of the genre, the cast is absolutely game for bringing it all to life.

Bradley Cooper disappears as Nightmare Alley’s lead, but Cate Blanchett is the true stunner.

The ensemble at play in Nightmare Alley isn’t merely a dream team of A-list talent and Guillermo del Toro loyalists, it’s also a cast brimming with actors who deliver exceptional neo-noir energy. Blending previous del Toro collaborators like Clifton Collins, Jr, Ron Perlman, and Richard Jenkins with the likes of Toni Collette, David Strathairn, and Rooney Mara is just the start, and it proves to be a formula you can’t lose with. But the true heavy hitting charisma at the heart of this movie has to come from Stanton Carlisle, which is where Bradley Cooper’s acting talents come into play.

Shifting through the slings and arrows of the cunning man’s fortunes, Cooper disappears as the mentalist who will becomes the toast of New York City thanks to his exceptional ability to read his marks. Commanding the role in its various phases, Bradley Cooper's character is pushed in some ways we’ve seen before in Nightmare Alley, but it's delivered with the actor aligning the ferocity we’ve seen him exhibit previously along with key doses of restraint. And yet, when it comes to the true stone cold stunning talent of this poisonous drama, you need not look further than Cate Blanchett’s Dr. Lilith Ritter.

Blanchett and Cooper’s pairing is one of the cinematic joys of 2021, as right from their first moments together on screen it’s absolutely what you would have expected and hoped for. The audience is going to obviously go into this movie with ideas in regard's to Lilith's motivations in Nightmare Alley, but whether those notions are fulfilled or not is incidental, as Blanchett’s pitch perfect performance supersedes such matters and culminates as a beautiful knockout. 

Finally making the noir film he’s always dreamed of, Guillermo del Toro shows the world he doesn’t need the supernatural to thrill.

The added personal pressure that comes with any “passion project” can scar even the most prodigious directors. It’s because of that historically proven circumstance that even the most optimistic viewer might feel some trepidation when approaching Nightmare Alley, as Guillermo del Toro has dreamed of making a neo-noir project for some time. Weaving his legendary magic as a storyteller, del Toro doesn’t deliver a missed opportunity, but instead seizes the moment in deliciously dark victory.

The writer/director has always been known as a creator who has passions as clear as his visions when it comes to pulling a project together. Nightmare Alley absolutely proves that he’s never let that zest for cinema over-inflate his work or his approach; he opts to thrill the viewer in a way that keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground, but allows for that trademark gore and brutality to peek out when it's most needed. With a cast that’s stacked to the rafters with talent, and a story so twisty that you’ll be surprised by the clues lying right in front of your eyes, it’s easy to see why this movie has been saved as a theatrical experience. 

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.