NIGHTMARE ALLEY – A Review by Cynthia Flores

NIGHTMARE ALLEY – A Review by Cynthia Flores

Director Guillermo del Toro is the master of moody, atmospheric films. With Nightmare Alley he has given us a thriller in full-blown film noir style.  This style of filmmaking comes from the French “dark film” genre made popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Mostly shot in black and white, these films had stark lighting effects and all manner of corrupt and brutal criminals with slinky femme fatales. These types of films used lots of flashbacks and had intricate plots. All the stories had an underlying existentialist philosophy. Think of great crime dramas such as 1944’s Double Indemnity or 1946’s The Big Sleep.

In Nightmare Alley, when charismatic but down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) gets a chance to work in a small seedy traveling carnival, he takes it. It’s the kind of place where no one cares where you come from because you are now one of them. It’s in this world filled with macabre shocks and wonders that he first learns about the geek act from Clem Hoately (Willem Defoe) the manager of the carnival. 

Stanton then has an affair with Zeena (Toni Collette) the carnival clairvoyant and befriends her has-been husband Pete (David Strathairn). Pete teaches him the gift of being a mentalist and psychic and he’s a natural at it. This is Stanton’s golden ticket to success.  Pete teaches him the gift of being a mentalist and psychic and he is a natural at it. He falls in love with the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) who is now his assistant in the act. Together they run away from the carnival and take their act on the road. 

His act as a mentalist and psychic makes them famous and well-paid. He and his now-wife Molly perform in only the ritziest of venues. Far from the lowly carnival life where they met. Stanton’s fame causes him to catch the eye of Lilith Ritter. She is a stunning psychiatrist to the wealthy elite of New York society. This sets in motion a series of events that puts Stanton on the road to his destiny. 

Nightmare Alley departs from the otherworldly elements of his past movies that he is known for. I mean, he won an academy award for a film about a sea monster falling in love with a cleaning woman. That being said, his storytelling abilities and his eye for creating worlds you live in with the characters up on the screen are in sharp focus here. Not to mention singlehandedly adding Cate Blanchett’s searing portrayal of psychiatrist Lilith Ritter to the annals of femme fatale history. Blanchett’s character could go toe to toe with Lauren Bacall’s infamous Vivian Rutledge as far as producing heat and sizzling steam on screen.  

When asked what drew the sought-after director to this project Guillermo del Toro is quoted as saying: 

“I was very interested in a story about destiny and humanity. Stanton Carlisle is a man who is given all the elements to change his life. He has people who believe in him, who love him and trust him. Yet his drive and his own hubris are so strong that they turn him away from that.”

I give Nightmare Alley a 4.5-star rating. It’s a stylized hardboiled look at the concept of being born bad – a karmic, carnie tale. This movie has the mythic quality and probing humanity that defines such del Toro classics as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water.  In other words, mask up and go see this on the big screen of a theater near you.


Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan, based on the book by Lindsay Gresham

Rated: R

Selig Rating: 4.5 Stars

Running Time: 2h 30min

Drama / Crime Thriller

Wide Theatrical Release: December 17th 

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara


The Selig Rating Scale:

5 Stars – Excellent movie, well worth the price.

4 Stars – Good movie

3 Stars – OK movie

2 Stars – No need to rush. Save it for a rainy day.

1 Star – Good that I saw it on the big screen but wish I hadn’t paid for it.

Written By
More from Cynthia Flores
JANE – A Review by Cynthia Flores
  JANE – A Review by Cynthia Flores     Jane is...
Read More
0 replies on “NIGHTMARE ALLEY – A Review by Cynthia Flores”