Nightmare Alley has a mostly compelling story with excellent character work and performances but is marred by being overly long and runs out of steam by the third act.
Plot: Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) enters the world of high-stake grift after learning his craft at a carnival.
Review: Except for “Mimic,” which I still haven’t seen, I have enjoyed Guillermo Del Toro’s earlier films, especially Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies. His last three movies…not so much. Pacific Rim was a bit of a mess, Crimson Peak was kind of blah, and The Shape of Water was just plain ludicrous. Still, I’m enough of a fan of what he’s trying to do to give Nightmare Alley a chance.
Well, the good news is, it’s better than his last three movies. The storyline is often compelling, and the characters are interestingly drawn. There’s enough spectacle going on to engage the viewer, especially through the movie’s first two acts. The carnival scenes stand out and show off both Del Toro’s always vivid imagination and the stellar cast assembled to appear in the film. You really feel the world of the carnival come alive and the carnies as a real family looking out for one another. The second act, which takes mostly in more “upper-class” surroundings, is a nice counterpoint to the film’s first part and introduces Cate Blanchett, who does terrific work.
Before I continue, I have to say this is probably, one of the best-designed movies I’ve seen in a long, long time. The level of detail and atmosphere in all of the sets is surreal and brings everything so vividly to life; if this flick doesn’t win awards for Production Design and Cinematography, then something is wrong. I loved just looking at this movie, seeing the actors interact in these beautiful sets, and I honestly can’t think of a single location, set, camera angle or lighting that sucked. This is professional filmmaking at its finest, and frankly, my hats off to those craftspeople who brought this world so excellently to the screen.
Now, to the down notes. Firstly, the movie is too frigging long. No ifs, ands or buts, the film just doesn’t justify needing to be 2 and a half hours long. By the third act, it’s flagging badly and needed to be wrapped up. Things get a bit silly because of it, and at least one character’s storyline was kind of unwound because the movie just didn’t know when to call it a day. It’s really a shame, but it suffers a bit from “Return of the King” syndrome – you know, the Lord of the Rings movie that ended like ten times before it actually finally did end. I was getting ready to get up and give my ass a respite after sitting there over two hours watching this film, but nope, it kept going and going like the Energizer Bunny. For the life of me, I don’t know why filmmakers can’t make movies for two hours or less anymore. It’s like they think a movie will suck if it’s not a damn marathon.
Then there’s the fact, and while it didn’t bother me, it would bother some people, the characters in this movie are almost all scumbags. I wouldn’t say every single character is, but we’re dealing almost exclusively with grifters, con folks, and worse, so while it is an interesting film and didn’t really turn me off, it’s not the sort of movie I can see myself (or many people, for that matter) popping into the DVD player often. For some people, that will be a big turn off. This is a noir film and believe me, it gets quite noir.
This movie was nominated for an Academy Award, and for the most part, I think it deserves it. It really is a good watch (albeit probably 1 watch), and despite its runtime, I wasn’t bored for most of it. It’s just that third act that stops it from becoming something truly excellent. However, it’s the best Del Toro has produced in a while (at least in my opinion), and that should count for something.