Being his first film after the hugely celebrated Shape of Water (2017), Guillermo del Toro had a difficult act to follow. Nightmare Alley walks us through the journey of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) perfecting a carnival trick, finding its way into mentalism, begging him to sell his soul and face the shadows of his world’s past and present.
Production designer Shane Vieau and del Toro collaborate on a majestic and grand set, which strongly holds the essence of the film and story. Subsequently, the literal and conceptual world-building is masterful and engulfs viewers, be it through the production design or through del Toro’s eye. Accompanied by Dan Laustsen’s warm yet stark cinematography, the marriage of his style with del Toro’s camera work makes for a stunning final look. The score melds effortlessly with the film’s tonal variation and aesthetic, occasionally feeling blockbuster-esque, though not negatively.
The 1940s setting lends itself to many archetypes which are actualised in the film for better and for worse. This lean into archetypes may have been more forgivable, however, if the dialogue was not so jarringly on-the-nose. Del Toro and Kim Morgan’s writing fronts its strengths when it remains in the realm of questioning with its moments of meticulousness, but its rich subtext often gets translated into a frequently plastic script.
Despite the shaky writing, the performances across the board are astounding, making the world of magic, in which the story is framed, more digestible. Bradley Cooper brilliantly holds his own across the film’s two hours and thirty minutes runtime; unsurprisingly so, but a great sight nevertheless. Toni Collette steals the show, carrying every scene she is in, and being blessed with some of the best developmental scenes integral to the film.
All components considered, del Toro’s mystical and biblical tale is a greatly mixed, stirred, and shaken bag. The highs, of which there are many, are magnificent, while the lows leave a rather bitter, lingering taste. The script feels too much like a teenage soap at times for me to be able to take the rest of the dark and sombre story seriously. And due to the slouchy screenplay, I feel the two hours and thirty minutes runtime has a hard time trying to justify itself. It is not a film built for rewatch, unless you would enjoy plucking and unpacking easter eggs. It is with great dismay I declare Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley a disposable viewing experience, leagues behind Shape of Water, although still a thrilling enough ride for a single watch, albeit out of respect for del Toro and the loaded cast and crew.