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Review: Swindlers scheme in ‘Nightmare Alley’

“Nightmare Alley” is the second movie adaptation of a 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. The neo-noir psychological thriller film by Guillermo del Toro features an ensemble including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins.

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"Nightmare Alley" is the second feature film adaptation of the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. The psychological thriller directed by Guillermo del Toro is playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre and the Sunset Cinema in Jenkins. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER — It was the nightmare before Christmas. And, oh, what a nightmare it was!

“Nightmare Alley” was released the week before Christmas, and the motion picture has received positive reviews from movie critics.

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The psychological thriller by Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro is the second feature film adaptation of the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham.

The movie’s ensemble cast includes Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and David Strathairn.

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Cooper is Stanton Carlisle, a charming but down-on-his-luck man in the 1940s who is taught by a carnival clairvoyant played by Collette and her mentalist husband played by Strathairn.

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The clairvoyant and the mentalist use cold reading and codes to make it seem to audiences that she has extraordinary mental powers, tricks of the trade Carlisle learns before a tragic death.


“You don’t fool people, Stan. They fool themselves.”

— Dr. Lilith Ritter


But not before Carlisle wins the heart of another carnival performer, Molly Cahill played by Mara, and approaches her with an idea for their own two-person act.

Much to Cahill’s dismay, Carlisle later teams up with Dr. Lilith Ritter, a corrupt psychologist played by Blanchett, to swindle the wealthy and elite of New York City society.

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“When does it end? I want to know,” Cahill asks Carlisle.

Ritter tells Carlisle, “You don’t fool people, Stan. They fool themselves.”

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Carlisle soon becomes involved romantically with Ritter and hatches a scheme to con a dangerous tycoon by the name of Ezra Grindle, played by veteran character actor Jenkins.

“We’ve had our share of snake charmers in the past. … We deal with them,” Grindle says menacingly.

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Deadly sins such as lust and greed are on full display in the R-rated neo-noir from Searchlight Pictures playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter and the Sunset Cinema in Jenkins.

“I’ve given you a fortune! … It’s time that you deliver,” Grindle warns Carlisle.


“We’ve had our share of snake charmers in the past. ... We deal with them."

— Ezra Grindle


While Carlisle’s seemingly inevitable road to damnation leads through “Nightmare Alley,” the audience has to wonder if Carlisle’s baser instincts will prevail or can he find an exit strategy.

“Nightmare Alley” is del Toro’s follow-up to “The Shape of Water.” “Nightmare Alley” was named one of the top 10 films of 2021 by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute.

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“The Shape of Water,” a 2017 romantic fantasy involving a humanoid amphibian and a mute cleaner, netted Academy Awards for best director for del Toro and for best picture.

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There are eight actors and actresses that were nominated for Oscars in “Nightmare Alley,” but Blanchett and Steenburgen are the only two to have won the Academy Award.

Another Oscar-winner, Leonardo DiCaprio, entered negotiations to star in “Nightmare Alley,” but Cooper replaced the “Titanic” actor when negotiations broke down. Cooper’s “A Star is Born” remake was nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, actor and adapted screenplay.

“Nightmare Alley” currently holds an 80% approval rating among critics and a 63% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.

The RottenTomatoes.com critics consensus reads: “While it may not hit quite as hard as the original, Guillermo del Toro's ‘Nightmare Alley’ is a modern noir thriller with a pleasantly pulpy spin.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bdfilmforum .

Frank Lee.jpg
Frank Lee

Frank Lee.jpg
Frank Lee

Frank Lee.jpg
Frank Lee

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I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write articles for the Wadena Pioneer Journal weekly newspaper owned by Forum Communications Co.
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