Nightmare Alley First Reviews: A Winning Cast and Gorgeous Visuals Make Guillermo del Toro's Thriller Shine

Critics say the Oscar-winning director's twisty and twisted noir is more grounded than his usual work but no less gruesome or shocking.

by | December 2, 2021 | Comments

It’s been four years since the release of The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy film that won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for the fan-favorite auteur. Now comes his dream project follow-up, Nightmare Alley, which, aside from being another period piece, looks to be totally different from del Toro’s usual fare.

Based on a 1946 novel and its first adaptation from 1947, del Toro’s latest is an homage to film noir and a showcase for an ensemble cast led by Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett. Will it be another hit with the filmmaker’s fanbase and awards voters alike? Given the general favor of the first reviews, with particular emphasis on the visuals and performances, the road ahead for the movie seems promising.

Here’s what critics are saying about Nightmare Alley:

Will fans of Guillermo del Toro like it?

Nightmare Alley is classic del Toro and yet sharply departed from the horrors we have come to expect. – Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? A Geek Community

It’s a perfect match of material to auteur. – Peter Debruge, Variety

Yet another winner from del Toro, a director who loves the weird, the strange, the wicked, the perverse. – Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm

Nightmare Alley will surprise some… but to devoted fans of the filmmaker’s work, the new feature feels like a movie he’s been building towards for some time now. – Mike Reyes, Cinema Blend

Sadly, the setting is too straightforward and grounded for del Toro to infuse much of his signature styling. – Mike Massie, Gone With The Twins

Richard Jenkins, Guillermo del Toro, and Bradley Cooper on the set of Nightmare Alley

(Photo by Kerry Hayes/©20th Century Studios)

Is it a big departure for the director?

Del Toro has frequently championed outcasts and misfits, but in Nightmare Alley he has at last found an outsider who isn’t deserving of our sympathy. – Tim Grierson, Screen International

Del Toro creates a story so focused on the grime of humanity that empathy is left at the door. And it works…. It’s a del Toro film like you haven’t seen before. – Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? A Geek Community

The most significant departure this glossy abscess of a noir makes from its director’s previous work is here, men are the only monsters (along with a woman or two). – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

It’s a rare misstep. – Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

Does it honor its film noir influences?

The movie ranks as the most stunning modern noir to behold since Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. – Peter Debruge, Variety

Guillermo del Toro’s effort in Nightmare Alley succeeds with flying colors because he and co-writer Kim Morgan truly understand the what makes this sort of movie tick. – Mike Reyes, Cinema Blend

With a semi-playful nod to the 1945 film Detour and more than a few rain-drenched streets, Nightmare Alley pays tribute to noir. But it’s also its own dark snow globe, luminous and finely faceted. – Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter

It’s a welcome throwback entertainment that noir and del Toro fans should devour. – Pete Hammond, Deadline

Bradley Cooper and Willem Dafoe in Nightmare Alley

(Photo by Kerry Hayes/©20th Century Studios)

Are there elements of horror?

Del Toro opts to thrill the viewer in a way that keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground but allows for that trademark gore and brutality to peek out when it’s most needed. – Mike Reyes, Cinema Blend

You’ll be shocked by some of the quick bouts of horrors that shade the final moments. – Jimmy O, JoBlo’s Movie Emporium

There’s a burst of violence so unexpected I impulsively uttered “holy s–t” under my breath in the theater. – Robert Kojder, Flickering Myth

The director can hardly resist a bit of the old ultra-violence — a weakness that infects nearly all his films, as he insists on pushing our faces into the gory, bone-crunching consequences of his characters’ behavior. – Peter Debruge, Variety

The gruesome imagery on display can’t live up to the provocations of the mind. – Mike Massie, Gone With The Twins

How does it compare to the first adaptation?

It is a more expansive version than the first film iteration of the book… [and the] ending is truer to the source material than the Tyrone Power movie was. – Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter

Everything here is visually more elaborate and grotesque than in the original 1947 picture. – Mike Massie, Gone With The Twins

While the remake occasionally delivers R-rated gore, sex, or language, the older one still registers as the more shocking, more intense film. – Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

Del Toro’s natural empathy for even the most damnable creatures… sparks new life into Nightmare Alley. – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

The ’47 movie is a bit nastier; a bit meaner. Perhaps del Toro is too much of a dreamer and a lover of darkness to recreate such acidity. – Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley

(Photo by Kerry Hayes/©20th Century Studios)

How is the script?

So twisty that you’ll be surprised by the clues lying right in front of your eyes. – Mike Reyes, Cinema Blend

When the plot seems to have reached the point of becoming too thick, it’s cut open, allowing each element of the story to fall into place. – Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? A Geek Community

The film’s spell is broken, somewhat, as it lurches towards its grim, foreshadowed end… Story elements don’t so much unravel as abruptly blow-up in violence. – Roger Moore, Movie Nation

Del Toro often lets the genre trappings and lush production values overwhelm the narrative. – Tim Grierson, Screen International

The screenplay can at times be too literal. – Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter

The script is ill conceived, a disaster that squanders all of the good faith it tries to cultivate in the first half hour, tossing reason and empathy to the side. – Roger Friedman, Showbiz 411

How does the movie look?

Del Toro knows how to conjure images, and does so with his usual brio. – Roger Friedman, Showbiz 411

From a rain-soaked carnival midway to a glossy, Art Deco therapist’s office, everything in Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley looks gorgeous. – Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

With show-stopping set pieces and costuming that goes a mile past just fitting to the era, Nightmare Alley is a visual feast. – Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? A Geek Community

From the production design to the photography from Dan Laustsen, Nightmare Alley is a beauty. – Robert Kojder, Flickering Myth

The real star attraction is the brilliant and vibrant production design from Tamara Deverell and Dan Laustsen’s sumptuous cinematography. – Pete Hammond, Deadline

Mercifully less plastic-looking than del Toro’s recent work, but… the sleek patina the director brings to all of his digital work is still a poor fit for a film so bleak that every ray of light feels like a lie that Stanton is selling. – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

Gloomy visuals are additionally marred by the over-reliance on CGI. – Marya E. Gates, The Playlist

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley

(Photo by Kerry Hayes/©20th Century Studios)

How is Bradley Cooper’s performance?

Extraordinary. – Robert Kojder, Flickering Myth

Building on the rise-and-crash arc of his A Star Is Born has-been, Bradley Cooper delivers another terrific tragic turn as ambitious huckster Stanton Carlisle. – Peter Debruge, Variety

This is the most transformative performance of his career… His charisma slowly chipped away throughout the 140 minutes runtime and yet bolstered at the same time. – Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? A Geek Community

Cooper has one of his best roles here… He does exceptionally well, bringing far more depth and risk-taking than [Tyrone Power in the original] was allowed to display. – Pete Hammond, Deadline

The true heavy hitting charisma at the heart of this movie… delivered with the actor aligning the ferocity we’ve seen him exhibit previously along with key doses of restraint. – Mike Reyes, Cinema Blend

A career-best performance. – EJ Moreno, Flickering Myth

Cooper brings Stan’s duplicity constantly to the surface, so it’s hard to buy that he’s pulling one over on anyone when it’s always so obvious that he’s putting on an act. – Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

Cooper can’t seem to get a handle on the material, always feeling out of his element but not in a purposeful way. – Marya E. Gates, The Playlist

Are there any other standouts in the cast?

David Strathairn is an early standout. – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

Props to Rooney Mara. She is like a quiet storm in this film. – EJ Moreno, Flickering Myth

Collette and Blanchett make the deepest impressions among the supporting cast… Mara has the tricky job of playing the jaded innocent, and pulls it off. – Roger Moore, Movie Nation

Blanchett clearly was born for noir and as usual steals the show. – Pete Hammond, Deadline

As good as the first half of Nightmare Alley may be, it really comes to life when Lilith shows up, played by Cate Blanchett. – Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm

With a smorgasbord of talented and charismatic actors in front of the camera, it’s shocking that none overpower the other. – Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? A Geek Community

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley

(Photo by Kerry Hayes/©20th Century Studios)

How are Cooper and Blanchett together?

Blanchett and Cooper’s pairing is one of the cinematic joys of 2021. – Mike Reyes, Cinema Blend

Cooper and Blanchett chart a course all their own… and the dance between the two is elegant and intimidating. – Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? A Geek Community

It’s such a thrill to watch Blanchett spar with Cooper during their characters’ private sessions. – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

The ensuing power dance between these two master manipulators puts Nightmare Alley right up there with Sunset Boulevard, There Will Be Blood and other period studies of opposing forces. – Peter Debruge, Variety

Is it too long?

Overlong… slow-moving and plodding. – Mike Massie, Gone With The Twins

Nightmare Alley crawls along at a bloated 2 hours, 20 minutes. – Roger Friedman, Showbiz 411

This version runs 40 minutes longer than the original and could have used a bit more trimming in the second half. – Pete Hammond, Deadline

Nightmare Alley does suffer from problems of pacing. – Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm

The near two and a half hour runtime may be slightly excessive, but not problematic. – Jimmy O, JoBlo’s Movie Emporium

At a comfortable 140 minutes, del Toro takes his time. – Matt Oakes, Silver Screen Riot

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley

(Photo by Kerry Hayes/©20th Century Studios)

Is Nightmare Alley ultimately worth the wait?

By the end, I was like this is what I really wanted. – EJ Moreno, Flickering Myth

One of the most satisfying endings I’ve seen. – Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? A Geek Community

The final shot of this movie is an all-timer. – Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm

One of the best films of 2021. – Roger Moore, Movie Nation

Nightmare Alley is in theaters on December 17, 2021.

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