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REVIEW: Guillermo del Toro Strikes Gold With Nightmare Alley

5/5 party tricks.

Bradley Cooper with a mask on his eyes in Nightmare Alley

This holiday season is filled with movies for everyone, but one that has fans on the edge of their seats is Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro, the master of spooky tales, is back with a look into the work of William Lindsay Gresham, and it is well worth the wait.

**Slight spoilers for Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley lie within.**

Set in the world of carnivals and grifters, Nightmare Alley brings us a cast of characters who are here to make a buck and put on a show, but what happens when one man takes his tricks too far? Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, a man who is running from his past and searching for a place to land. When he finds Clem Hoatley’s (Willem Dafoe) “Geek” show, he ends up with a job in the carnival as their barker.

What works about this film is what works about every one of del Toro’s stories: It’s about the exploration of character in the darkest of circumstances, something that the horror genre works best with. And Nightmare Alley is a film that lets GDT explore the lengths a man will go to in order to prove he’s special, even if it means his own downfall.

del Toro’s love stories

While the movie is about Stan and his drive to take over as a mentalist, it also features Bradley Cooper at his most charming, mainly in scenes with Rooney Mara’s Molly. As Stan begins to make himself known with the crew at the carnival, he starts to get closer to Molly (much to Ron Perlman’s Bruno’s dismay), but he remains respectful and caring towards her through their “courtship” in a way that makes Cooper’s character wildly endearing—which, to a degree, is the point.

We’re supposed to understand why people would believe Stan and his mental illusions, why they’d pay him to talk to the dead, and it works. I fully would willingly be grifted by Stanton Carlisle, and I would have no one to blame but myself. But much like del Toro’s other romances, it is a tortured one that works within the story and is the tragic sort of romance we’ve come to love in his films, like The Shape of Water and Crimson Peak.

bradley cooper and rooney mara flirting in nightmare alley

To be clear, Stanton is not a hero. He’s an incredibly complicated man with a dark past who I do think genuinely cares about Molly in the beginning, but throughout the story, he grows in his acclaim and shifts from a man just trying to blend in to a man who begs to be seen.

There’s a line in the film that says that human beings long to be seen, and there’s truth in that for each of the characters we see onscreen, even those who are the most “private” of them. They want to be connected to other humans in some way or another, and the film revolves around our desire to be entertained and happy while also living in our regrets.

At one of the longer runtimes for Guillermo del Toro, Nightmare Alley has his beautiful lens on it. There are shots that are so completely GDT that they’re breathtaking, and the movie is definitely one you do not want to miss.

Nightmare Alley hits theaters on December 17.

(image: Searchlight Pictures/Kerry Hayes)

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Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. A writer her whole life but professionally starting back in 2016 who loves all things movies, TV, and classic rock. Resident Spider-Man expert, official Leslie Knope, actually Yelena Belova. Wanda Maximoff has never done anything wrong in her life. Star Wars makes her very happy. New York writer with a passion for all things nerdy. Yes, she has a Pedro Pascal podcast. And also a Harrison Ford one.