Nightmare Alley Review
Let’s talk about Nightmare Alley.
There are a number of directors that you always have to keep an eye on because you know whatever they’ll make will be exciting. People like Christopher Nolan for instance. It doesn’t matter what you thought about his last movie, you know that his next film will be at the very least interesting. Guillermo del Toro is one of those directors. His recent work has been inconsistent, Crimson Peak was a bit meh but The Shape of Water was excellent, but even his poorer efforts have so much style and creativity in them that you have to pay attention. And so in a January that has had around two films released, and one of them is The 355 and that’s barely a film, you have to pay attention to Nightmare Alley.
Stanton ends up at the circus and soon learns the talents that make him a very good mentalist. He starts to perform to bigger audiences but soon he starts to believe in his own talents and ends up involved in something even bigger and more dangerous than he realises.
This film is two and a half hours long. That is a long time. And as much as there is a lot to like in this film, it’s this that dominates my thoughts when I think about it. When I’ve said to people I’ve gone to see this and people continue the polite small talk by asking how it was, I tell them that it was two and a half hours long. And they nod and understand exactly what I mean. Because this film feels it’s length as well. This is the danger when you make your 150 minute epic into something rather slow paced. When there isn’t a scene that is the best, you do have a look at your watch to check how long there is to go. Then you find out it’s only been thirty minutes and the film hasn’t really got going yet.
That’s not to say it’s bad. It isn’t. If you were a ruthless editor looking to get this to a sharp ninety minutes, as I’m sure a newly unemployed producer told del Toro at some point, they probably said that they could make the hour at the circus into a mean ten minutes. After all, a lot of it doesn’t end up mattering hugely to the plot. There are some bits of course and the build-up of Stanton becoming a mentalist, but a lot of it could be handwaved or explained later on. But this bit does have a lot of great del Toro-ness that you don’t want to miss out on. There’s the macabreness of the freak show elements of the circus, including the babies in pickle jars. Honestly, how we’ve not had a circus like this before in a del Toro movie before is quite shocking. There’s just a lot of cool visuals on display and it’s this sort of thing that you like to see from him.
But again, it’s the pacing issue that blights the movie. Everything feels like it takes ages for it to get to. The film is not exactly unpredictable but that’s not the major issue. The characters are well defined enough that while you might get a feeling of the twist that’s to come, you want to see how the characters react to it and what they go on to do from there. But the problem is the film sets up what is going to happen, you know it’s going to happen but it takes its sweet time to actually get there. So instead of enjoying the moment unfolding and seeing what will happen next, you get impatient and annoyed the film hasn’t got around to doing it yet. It takes around twenty minutes from the moment Stanton says he’s leaving the circus to when he actually does and it just feels like the movie slows down for the sake of slowing down. Ok, some things do happen but the time it takes to do it can make everything feel a little sluggish.
But all this build up does end up being worth it. The film kicks into its final sequence at Ezra Grindle’s mansion and that’s when everything starts to click. The pace kicks up a notch and all the things that have been built up over the previous two hours starts to finally pay off. At the very base of this film is the story of a man whose ego gets too big and he bites off more than he can chew. And this is where what he chews fights back. This is all perfectly executed stuff. Things escalate in a great way, twists are unveiled in the most dramatic way possible and in the end, the film ends in the best way possible. It’s a fantastic ending and one which makes you think the rest of the film was worth getting through.
I think whether or not you enjoy this film depends on if you think you can sit through two hours of solid if a little tedious stuff in order to get to that ending sequence. It is truly brilliant and if it wasn’t there, I’d probably be a lot tougher on this movie that I otherwise would have been. But for me, it does make the movie something pretty good. I can’t ignore that the first two hours were often tough to get through but despite this, I did enjoy Nightmare Alley for the most part even if it will be seen as a lesser del Toro effort.