Spoiler-Free Review: “Nightmare Alley” (2021) starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Colette, & Rooney Mara

In the late 1930s, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) buries a body and burns down a house in a rural area. Stan gets a job w/ a traveling carnival, after helping the owner- Clem (Willem Dafoe)- capture one of the escaped performers, a “geek.” This term comes from the German word “geck,” meaning fool/simpleton; it “geek” was used around circuses/carnivals to describe a wild man/woman. A typical geek show in the mid-19th c. would have a person on stage biting the head off of an animal (a chicken is seen in this case) and drinking its blood. Stan is silent (Cooper doesn’t speak until 11 mins. into the movie) and observant for a time, taking in the new environment and its inhabitants. He starts working w/ clairvoyant act of “Madame Zeena” (Toni Colette- who I wanted to see more) and her older/alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn- always great in any role). He has his eyes on a young performer, Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), and approaches her w/ the idea of a 2-person act (away from the carnival). An older strongman, Bruno (Ron Perlman), is suspicious of Stan and protective of Molly.

I saw this move last week on HBOMax; it’s a mix of noir and horror (w/ a few gruesome images which may turn off sensitive viewers). Director Guillermo del Toro noted that this is NOT a remake of Nightmare Alley (1947) starring Tyrone Power, BUT a re-adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. However, several critics/viewers commented that they saw callbacks to the original. Leonardo DiCaprio was originally picked for the lead, but when negotiations fell through, he was shortly replaced by Cooper. As one movie podcaster said: “I hope DiCaprio didn’t turn this down for ‘Don’t Look Up,’ b/c that isn’t a good movie.” I’m NOT a fan of Cooper or a hater; I don’t see the big appeal. I get the sense that his skills are suited to lighter (comedic) roles; Cooper lacks the gravitas of someone like DiCaprio. In his characterization of Stan, Power is more compelling; he’s able to convey the dangerous/dark side to his character.

I was impressed w/ the supporting actors, though Mara should’ve gotten a BIT more character development. In the original, Coleen Gray’s Molly exuded innocence/positivity; here, she is morose/jaded. Do you think Stan loves Molly or is he just using her b/c she is young/impressionable? Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is a fascinating/mysterious character; she fits into the femme fatale role (a few critics were reminded of Lizbeth Scott re: her look). I enjoyed Blanchett’s scenes w/ Cooper, BUT it’s obvious who’s the more stronger/charismatic performer. The wealthy/powerful businessman, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), makes a more formidable adversary than in the original.

I wanted to love this movie (as a big fan of noir), BUT this is a case of style over substance. There are some good scenes, so it’s worth a look. Del Toro creates a world that is visually V interesting. The cinematography, musical score, production design, costumes/hair, etc. suit the story well. There are a few (creepy) people and props in the carnival that will stay in your mind- yikes! There is a B&W version; I’d be interested in seeing that sometime. Like MANY recent films, the running time is TOO long. It takes more than an hour to get out of the carnival atmosphere. There are a few elements which will remain a mystery, such as Lilith’s past and her motivation for what she is doing. I just expected more from such an ambitious film!

5 thoughts on “Spoiler-Free Review: “Nightmare Alley” (2021) starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Colette, & Rooney Mara

  1. Well, up until maybe a yr ago, I was often watching news/politics type shows! I’m also NOT into horror, BUT one of my friends likes that genre (so I’ve been trying to branch out). I got into sci-fi just a few yrs ago; I only saw “TNG” as a kid/teen. Some directors’ styles just don’t mesh w/ me, even though tried to appreciate.

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  2. I saw this on Hulu and turned it off halfway through (it was slow AND pointlessly violent). I had not seen the original film or read the novel.

    It felt a lot to me like “The Shape of Water” on an aesthetic level, which didn’t work here — noir works as a genre because there are all these things that lurk in the shadows (as opposed to showing us everything, which is del Toro’s style). To me the only redeeming thing about this film was Cate Blanchett, who would have ruled the noir world had she been working in the days of b/w film. (I also thought of seeing it in the theatre when they showed the b/w version, but I didn’t think I’d been able to stand it.) Like you, I’m “meh” on Bradley Cooper. Willem Dafoe is always fine.

    DON’T LOOK UP is not a bad film. Geez. It’s maybe not my favorite of McKay film (probably “The Big Short”) but it sure made me laugh during a rather dark month.

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    • Hahaha- I had to almost turn off “Don’t Look Up” (BUT I have friend who liked it)! Well, maybe there were a FEW funny moments. I liked “Vice” & saw it w/ few ppl in theater when it was first out. Honestly, don’t think del Toro is my style, BUT I haven’t seen many of his movies yet. The length issue is getting to be really common/annoying lately.


      • I liked “Vice” but I think you have to have too much knowledge to really appreciate / understand all the jokes. It’s very clever but unless you’ve been a fairly avid reader of the political news going back decades, it’ll be a struggle. (I considered including it in “History Goes to the Movies” but the amount of stuff I’d have had to explain to the students was non-trivial.)

        del Toro: I’m not generally that interested in scifi / monsters / horror, so most of what he has made has passed me by. I think “The Shape of Water” is the only other one I’ve seen. I don’t plan to see Pinocchio (in pursuit of leaving pleasant childhood memories undisturbed).

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