Let’s not be as smart as we think we are.
Nightmare Alley is the new one from Guillermo del Toro, so we know that it is going to look great. We follow Stan (Bradley Cooper), a down-on-his-luck and running-from-his-past grifter who ends up working for Clem (Willem Dafoe) at a carnival. He learns the trade from Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn) and becomes a mentalist. All while pining for Molly (Roony Mara) and wanting to be part of something larger than a travelling show.
Sound like a lot? Well, it is. There are a ton of characters here and the bummer is that we don’t get to spend enough time with any of them. There isn’t a dud performance, which makes screaming past so many stories a bit frustrating. Given the films atrocious pacing and running time this should not have been an issue. We spend too much time doing nothing instead of interacting with interesting characters.
Stan thinks he is smarter than he is—despite numerous warnings to not push things too far when grifting from his mentors, he still does. He gets entangled with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchet) and mixed up in what they call a “spook show,” where he claims to speak to the dead. This obviously leads him to more and more elaborate schemes that increase the danger he is putting himself into. Will he make it out?
The film is gorgeous. Honestly, this may be one of the best-looking films in recent years. The cinematography and set design are impeccable. The little details in every scene are fantastic and tell a deeper story than the one we are given. I think this film simply got too big for itself and suffer for it. We’re not introduced to major characters until well over the halfway point, and our earlier characters just vanish. Threads seem carelessly left undone throughout the latter half.
We can break the film into roughly three pieces. Stan at carnival. Stan in the city. Stan working with Lilith. Each individual piece has intrigue and interesting moments, but the overall flow between them seems too disparate.
The stories, despite being presented as grand, are relatively simple. We have a massive problem of telling rather than showing with character motivation, and we end up simply waiting for the predictable ending(s) of each chunk to manifest. An early encounter with how far carnival workers might go to keep an act afloat serve as a grim foreshadowing of what will happen, and we end up just watching this occur with little deviation.
The film is rather harsh towards carnival workers and psychologists, which is an odd pairing. Freaks does a better job humanizing these individuals and showing how they are making their own way in a world that rejects them. Here, they’re common criminals who are more than willing to share trade secrets with Stan immediately after he arrives. Years pass in this narrative, but we as the audience don’t know when these time jumps (minus one) occur. It seems like Stan is with the carnival folks for a few weeks, not months, and this confused timeline makes things seem uneven and poorly paced.
The third act is perhaps the worst of the film. Lilith’s character is completely unnecessary as she does little other than serve as the catalyst for the obvious twist that will eventually occur. Minute-to-minute, they spend more time with her than any character other than Stan, and her motivations are incredibly stupid, and pointless. Over an hour could have been cut from this film and nothing would be missed. The more I think about it the less I like it.
I know a lot of people liked this one and I just did not. Good acting, good design, great directing, and subpar storytelling left me cold and disinterested by the end. I found the twists forced (and dumb) and the whole thing a bit monotonous.
I wouldn’t recommend it.