Nightmare Alley

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I will tell you that Guillermo del Toro is one of my favourite directors but this is actually only based on three of his ten films. The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth are audacious masterpieces, and perhaps it is the comparison, but all of his other movies feel just a little lacking in some respect. Nightmare Alley then joins Crimson Peak and the Hellboy films in the ‘just shy of brilliance’ category, where there are moments of perfection but other aspects that you just wish could have been a little bit tighter.

Let’s start with what is good because there is still plenty to celebrate. In some respects Nightmare Alley is a departure for del Toro as the movie has no supernatural elements whatsoever. In fact in a clear statement of intent the story is about people who pretend to be connected to magic and the spirit world but are actually running tricks and cons. It is neat that this film centres on a carnival that asks its audience to wonder at the construction of the macabre and fantastical because that is what del Toro has done his whole career. If you know his work though, there’s no way you’d not recognise that this is a del Toro movie. It has all of his other trademarks; the immaculate and delicious set design, the beautiful framing, the deeply tangible sense of time and atmosphere, and of course quick flashes of very graphic violence and injury detail. It also has typically committed, intense performances and a deeply compelling narrative. As I say, there is much to commend it.

The problem is that it is all frustratingly predictable. There is delight in watching it play out but plot turns that I am sure are supposed to be twists unfold in such a way that you see them coming from a long way off. Similarly, before the protagonist, charlatan mystic Stanton Carlisle, heads hubristically toward his final gig, we are actually told he is heading for disaster but where this is designed to build suspense it instead robs the final act of some of the tension. Furthermore the whole film is a text book demonstration of the dramatic principles of Chekov’s gun. Whereas this convention, first described by famed Russian playwright Anton Checkov, states that earlier elements of a book or play should always play into the later narrative (don’t have a gun in the first half if you’re not going to fire it in the second) was initially there to guide writers away from filling their works with irrelevant detail and extemporaneous actions, it has now mostly become something more negative with the signposting of later events being considered a weakness. There is so much in Nightmare Alley that points to what will happen later, there are ultimately few, if any surprises. Not everything goes anywhere and perhaps this was del Toro’s intention; to include so many pointers that some of it is misdirection, but I don’t think this quite works. Most of the threads come across as alternately laboured or abandoned.

The film is also quite drawn out. It would have worked as a TV miniseries with three fifty minutes episodes but as a two and a half hour movie it feels poorly paced. It all just takes too long to get where it needs to go and as those destinations are totally anticipated you feel impatience where a better film would have given you intrigue or revelations.

So with the announcement of each of Guillermo del Toro’s new projects I will continue to feel excitement in the hope that we get another cinematic tour de force, but this is another one that isn’t quite there. It’s not Pan’s Labyrinth; close but no satyr.

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