The Reel Review
A handsome, pre-WWII era carny who develops a knack for manipulating others as a mentalist puts his skills to the test when he gets involved in a con job with an even more dangerous, femme fatale psychiatrist. Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett star in Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro’s adaptation of the William Lindsay Gresham 1946 crime novel about the sleazy world of grifters and con artists.
Visually, Del Toro’s neo-noirish crime thriller is terrific, with meticulously detailed production, costuming and cinematography that transports viewers into late 1930s/early 1940s Americana. And the acting, with a stellar cast of two Oscar winners (Blanchett and Mary Steenburgen) and a whopping six Oscar nominees (Cooper, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Toni Collette and David Straihairn), is strong throughout. Cooper, in particular, is exceptional.
But at a tedious two and a half hours, Del Toro’s bloated story of con artists conning con artists is at least 45 minutes too long. The sluggish pacing finally picks up in the film’s twist-laden second half, culminating in a fantastically haunting, karma-filled finalé, but Nightmare Alley is never able to pull itself out of the rut of being more about style than substance. Still, watch it for the incredible visuals.
• Director Guillermo Del Toro says he became fascinated with the story of grifters and fake psychics after several showed up at his house immediately after his father was kidnapped in 1998.
• Rooney Mara, who gave birth to son River with fiancé Joaquin Phoenix in September 2020 during a six-month break in production due to the COVID pandemic, also starred with Cate Blanchett in the 2015 romantic drama Carol.
• Bradley Cooper, who made headlines with a very brief, full-frontal nude bathtub scene in Nightmare Alley, took over as its star when Leonardo DiCaprio dropped out of the project.