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Parts of 'Nightmare Alley' are good, but it could have been so much more

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
Kerry Hayes
Searchlight Pictures
Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

One job a filmmaker has when adapting a book is to keep the parts that work and to improve on the parts that don’t. The more I think about Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, the more obsessed I am with some of the storytelling choices he made. I’ve not read the 1946 novel the movie is based on, but I have seen the 1947 adaptation of this bleak noir, so I have an idea of some of the differences that work, and some that don’t.

There’s too much plot for us to talk about here, but quickly, the setup-- Bradley Cooper is Stanton Carlisle, who falls in with a traveling carnival, doing odd jobs and sleight-of-hand. Stanton is a quick study and picks up techniques from a lot of the people around him, particularly the alcoholic Pete, who runs a mentalist act with his wife, Zeena, an act that’s based in a secret verbal code Stanton is eager to learn. Stanton eventually gets what he wants, but we all know we should be careful about too much of a good thing.

Del Toro’s film is very long, but I actually liked that this lets aspects of it breathe that were hurried in the earlier version. And he smartly dials back some of the story’s focus on psychology, a major part of the plot that nevertheless doesn’t work quite as well these days as it did in the 1940s. But he also glosses over some things that might have given us a better handle on Stanton, who seems less a complex person and more a set of conflicting character traits. And there are a few bits that he includes but pays such little attention to that we wonder why they’re there at all, other than fidelity to the book.

Of course, finding that balance between being faithful and improving a work is difficult, and it’s a tightrope act del Toro doesn’t quite nail. I was very pleased he retained the pitch-black ending of the novel rather than the softened version of the first film, and the movie looks just fantastic, moody and atmospheric and horrible, as we expect from the director. There’s plenty to recommend from Nightmare Alley, I just can’t help thinking there could have been so much more.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.