“Nightmare Alley” (2021): The Real Magic is the Mystery


Kerry Hayes

Source: Vital Thrills

Will Teare

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette with Ron Perlman and Willem Dafoe

Release Date: Dec. 17, 2021

Rating: 3/5

As a simple rule of thumb, never judge a movie by its trailer. I’m sure we can all relate to a time where clever marketing spun something a little better than it actually was. I remember seeing the synopsis for Nightmare Alley like this: a story about the downfall of a magician/con-man who hooks up with an even more dangerous woman. Then we got a teaser trailer with quickly cut scenes of Stanton “Stan” Carlisle(Bradley Cooper) running and getting shot at. Dr. Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) laughed sinisterly at a confused Stan. Molly (Rooney Mara) gets shocked in an electric chair. Stan is clearly getting into some scary, mystical stuff with a pentagram seen in the back. Toni Collette…just…Toni Collette is in the movie, which usually means someone is going to die. That’s just an unspoken rule of Hollywood. People are beaten, run over, running; Stan’s hand grazes the wall while hurrying out of a building that leaves a bloody print in his wake. We then end on Stan quickly hobbling and clutching a wound through a foggy night with Dafoe delivering, “Is he man or beast?” I mean, come on, look at that cast, and with Del Toro directing it? Who directed the Hellboy movies, Pan’s Labyrinth (a personal fave), Pacific Rim, and Best Picture winner The Shape of Water? Released during December, meaning he’s trying a run at the awards circuit? And it’s in a noir style? Frankly, I don’t have too much information on the 1947 film of the same name, or the book the two were based on(to be fair, neither does the general public), but this is a sure-fire, bankable hit. Or so I thought. 

Perhaps we should start with some positives. Del Toro’s camera is, as always, elegant and classy. Famously his camera never ever stops moving; whether it’s slowly pushing in, out, to the side, dollying quickly with action, a big crane shot, or a simple pan, it’s always visually interesting. Some shots easily throw this movie in with the best cinematography of 2021. Del Toro is also a fan of making sure that his sets and costumes align with his signature style. The production design is filled with immaculate art-deco-style architecture and a very lived-in carnival set. The costumes are also very fitting for the period and compliment every character as they should. Everyone on the artisan side of the film really put in the time and is also a real contender for some awards this year. Finally, the story ends (without spoilers) exactly as it should. All plotlines are set up and tied off neatly and with no problems in the actual plot.

Additionally, the actors all do their jobs exactly as the script tells them to. Nothing crazy; they’re just there and as talented as they always have been. However, how they get from point A to point B is the glaring issue and the film’s biggest downfall. 

The film is split into two radically different halves, the carnival plot where we set the tone, some characters, and Stan, our protagonist. In the second half, we jump two whole years. Stan is doing magic shows with Molly. We have practically dropped the entire previous cast for the rest of the movie (except only one scene) to bring in Lilith. An absolutely baffling story choice. The film is relatively slow in even getting to the actual plot, giving us set-ups in the first half that you know will pay off, and sure enough, they do, but it simply takes way too long to get there. I felt the pains of going through the story and thought that Cate Blanchett, as Lillith, would shake everything up. I mean, she’s second billing and is no stranger to a role as a villain. As a classically trained stage performer, Blanchett knows how to command stage presence. Plus, I trust Del Toro enough that I anticipate some kind of classic Hollywood thing where a character that’s been built up comes swinging in halfway through the movie to bring it all together and shake the status quo. When Blanchett was revealed for the first time a little over an hour into the film, I even got a little excited at showing a big-name, absurdly talented actor way late into the story. Any Blanchett time is a good time. But, frankly, I was very underwhelmed. The character of Lillith just goes through the motions as I wait for her femme fatal charms to sway Stan into the dark side. Cooper, Rooney, Colette, Perlman, and Dafoe’s charms all go to waste with them having nothing exciting to do but just play their parts and move on to the next project. Again, none of them are bad, but there wasn’t anything to really grasp onto their characters. 

Not once did I ever feel the justification that this is Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film. My mind was filled with what Del Toro is capable of after getting that trailer and through most of the movie. “When will this all come together and justify the build up? Is there real magic in this movie? ‘Man or Beast’…so maybe this is like a werewolf movie or some Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stuff? Is Cate Blanchett a witch or someone practicing black magic? Is Wilem going to be da friend or da foe? Is Roony Mara and Cate Blanchett going to have some screen time so I can make the niche joke to my friend that this is a Carol cast reunion?” But no, it’s just a simple con-man tale and a very simple way of getting about it that I’ve seen done better plenty of times. No classic Del Toro dark fantasy or any kind of fanfare or heart, just a simple movie. I sat there in that theater, quietly, wondering why I didn’t rewatch West Side StoryEncanto, or join the absurd amount of people seeing Spiderman: No Way Home this weekend (I’m finally seeing it tomorrow, I cannot, and I mean CANNOT wait). Alas, a few friends and I are the only people under 50 in my screening of Nightmare Alley. Don’t get it twisted; in a non-Dune year, this movie is a lock for many artisan categories. From that technical perspective, it really is a gorgeous movie. It’s not Del Toro if those visuals aren’t popping. I simply couldn’t say it’s terrible either. But when the lights go up, and the show’s over, the real magic was always before the magician explained his trick.