Guillermo del Toro
Nightmare Alley is a slow burn that, like one of Stanton Carlisle's shows, sets you up for a finale that takes your breath away and makes everything else worth it.
Based on a book that was already adapted into a classic film of the 1940's, Nightmare Alley is Guillermo del Toro's first directorial effort since his Oscar-winning efforts in The Shape of Water. It tells the story of Stanton Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper, who appears to have a questionable past when we meet him. He stumbles upon a circus and finds a home among the illusionists and freak shows. While there, he befriends a mentalist (David Strathairn) and fortune teller (Toni Collette) and begins to learn the tricks of their trades. As Carlisle becomes confident in his abilities, he steps out on his own and starts his own show, however a partnership with a psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) leads him to possibly push his skills and abilities passed what he can handle.
This is probably Guillermo del Toro's most grounded film, as all the fantastical here is illusion. It is a beautiful film, with great cinematography by Dan Laustsen. The direction and visuals set the scene for the actors to give masterful performances, led by Bradley Cooper. This is one of Cooper's best performances in awhile, and he draws you in as he discovers and becomes part of this wild world. The rest of the star-studded cast are brilliant as well, from Rooney Mara to Willem Dafoe to Ron Perlman to Richard Jenkins to Clifton Collins Jr. to Tim Blake Nelson. The standouts in the supporting group are definitely Strathairn, Collette, and Blanchett though. All these performances draw you into the story and instantly have you invested.
The script and story definitely take awhile to get going. It earns its 150 minute runtime by really taking its time setting the scene and the world this film is creating. For the first hour or so, I was wondering where the movie was going and when the action was going to pick up. It definitely gets more intriguing once it leaves the circus, but you can tell everything is building up for the final act.
Nightmare Alley was going to be made or broken by if it could deliver on the climactic ending. A film like Christopher Nolan's The Prestige failed in not having the payoff it needed. A film like Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men succeeded because of how it stuck the landing. Luckily, the last 30 minutes are some of the best filmmaking, acting, and scenes of the entire year. You are waiting the whole time for something to happen, but when it finally does, it still manages to shock no matter how inevitable it seemed. My jaw was dropped as I saw each twist and turn leading to a final scene and final shot I could see coming, but that doesn't change how haunting it is. It nailed the ending in a way only the instant classics do.
The more and more I think about this film, the more I think it is one of the best of the year. At its worst, it is engaging and intriguing. At its best, it's as good as film gets. Some of the best actors in the world are showing why they have that reputation, led by Bradley Cooper. Then there's Guillermo del Toro, who once again brings to life a story with classic themes in a way only he can.
Rating: 4 stars
Watch the trailer here: