Nightmare Alley (aka Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Guillermo del Toro is a director who is most known for his fantasy, horror, and sci-fi productions of Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, and The Shape of Water. He steps a tad out of his usual genre with Nightmare Alley, a remake of the classic noir thriller. His new take on the story is just as much a love letter to the original story of deception as it is another picture with his stylish flair coursing through every shot.
The film finds the 1930s drifter Stan taking an interest in a traveling carnival. Given that it’s a show with such features as a geek who can bite the heads of chickens, it seems like easy money. Even better, it’s a job where more money is possible if you can find the right way to deceive the audience. There’s a psychic act in the carnival that involves reading peoples’ minds via messages from a fire. The deception is simple enough that Stan can pick up on it after he’s hired by the crafty carnival owner of Clem (Willem Dafoe).
Though initially helping out with the grand mind-reading act of Madame Zeena (Toni Collette), he takes more of an interest in Molly (Rooney Mara). While aiding in the theatrics of her electricity showcase, he happens upon a formula from Zeena’s husband Pete (David Strathairn) that makes reading the audience even easier. Given that Clem finds it’s easy to take advantage of the alcoholic, Stan manages to swipe the secret from Pete during a drunken stupor that ends in his death. He runs off with Molly and seeks to make it on his own.
Of course, the con grows out of control quickly. Though romantically involved with Molly, Stan also finds himself getting involved with the psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She initially finds out about his scam but then opts to work with him, providing the key information on her clients for better cold-reading cons. But things get messy and Stan soon finds himself unable to keep up the crime game when the readings get trickier and relationships grow rockier.
Guillermo del Toro certainly adds some of his flair to this story. The carnival itself is quite a mesmerizing sight of elaborate displays and dark lighting. I particularly dug the elaborate setup for a device meant to fake electricity coursing throughout the body. He also perhaps has too much horror in the narrative. One of the most revised scenes features Stan and Molly trying to deceive the rich man Ezra (Richard Jenkins). When Molly has a change of heart about such deception, Ezra threatens to reveal Stan’s whole operation. The ending of this scene is far more violent and profanity-laden than the original film I almost wished the film was a tad more modern if only to appreciate how much Jenkins can cuss up a storm.
While Nightmare Alley isn’t exactly a major improvement over the previous film, as well as being one of del Toro’s lesser films, the film is still sufficient enough to be a pleasing psychological drama. It has some stylish touches here and there as well as featuring a far darker ending that finds just the right point to end. It’s perhaps longer than it needs to be but it’s a decent reminder that Guillermo del Toro isn’t just a one-genre director who can venture outside of his familiar genres.