Cert – 15, Run-time – 2 hours 30 minutes, Director – Guillermo del Toro
Shady stranger Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds himself picking up skills and tricks as a mentalist after joining a carnival, however a world of lies opens up as his success increases.
“It ain’t hope if it’s a lie, Stan” drunken retired mentalist Pete (David Strathairn) snaps at suave and quite stranger Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) when he questions about clairvoyance being used as a way to give hope to people wanting to know about their loved ones in the afterlife. On realising that he had gone too far and couldn’t tell the difference between truth and lie the dishevelled Pete turned his back on that part of his life, having turned more towards alcohol and acting as a hidden assistant to his wife, Zeena (Toni Collette), who is in similar work at the same carnival. Stanton comes into their life when getting off the bus outside the carnival at which they work at, wandering in and working his way into a job helping out the various figures that make up the group of ‘oddities’ and attractions. After a short amount of time Stan (as he becomes known) finds himself picking up and learning skills and abilities from Pete, which he soon intends to use for his own hustler gain.
Despite having seen what the seemingly controlled life has done to Pete – Strathairn delivering a truly unsung standout performance, which may go down, for me, as one of the best of the year! – Stan is adamant that he has everything in order and knows exactly how things will pan out. Even more so with the help of fellow performer Molly (Rooney Mara), not always aware of Stan’s true intentions. As the two turn their own backs on the carnival and set out into the world to perform in-front of high society Guillermo del Toro’s latest flicks a switch and the narrative begins to take shape. It feels like the first half of this two and a half hour piece is largely made up of build-up and development for the plot that makes up the second half of the film. We get to see and generally know the figures that welcome, train and, at times, threaten Stan before he moves on to a more profitable life.
There’s certainly the feeling of a different tone and more fluidity as this change occurs, particularly as we finally get to see Cate Blanchett’s psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter. However, Nightmare Alley, despite it’s length; which could be trimmed down, likely by taking out or shortening some of the instances in the largely carnival-based segment of the film, never feels like two different films stuck together. It simply has two different halves as it explores one world and demonstrates the consequences in another. The style and flare still remains the same – technically, particularly in terms of the production and costume design, there’s a lot of attention to detail to enhance the noir-like nature of the world which is being laid out for the viewer.
Yet, with everything that you do see there still seems to be lacking in terms of the mystery that surrounds Stanton’s past. We see very brief occasional glimpses of the event that led him to get on a bus to as-far-away-as-possible but these feel rare and you sometimes forget the fact that there’s a key event that led to his arrival in the first place. The element of mystery somewhat vanishes as his dark past is put aside in exchange for everything that is happening in the present, and while when it does return the mystery, and slightly sinister nature, is felt, it’s certainly rare and feels moved on from quickly.
There’s sometimes a busy sense to Nightmare Alley, particularly in the first half where the ensemble nature is emphasised more amongst the carnival folk. However, great performances and an intriguing sense of build up and development help keep you engaged for when the narrative finally comes into play. The film as a whole might feel overlong, and there may be some elements that could do with trimming while others may work better with slight expansion, but overall there’s still an interesting tale being spun by del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan. Just one that sometimes takes a while to tell and takes some, although still engaging and holding some of the best elements; and performances, of the film, build-up beforehand.
Nightmare Alley is certainly a film of two halves. One focused on build-up, the other narrative. They both work, although eventually pushing the feeling of the run-time, and have plenty of visual detail and great performances to be caught up in. It just occasionally feels that amongst everything we do see there’s a certain dark mystery left out.