Why Wasn’t Nightmare Alley Very Good?

Just make sure that you are not reading this on false pretenses, I don’t actually have an answer here. Sorry, if that was what you were looking for.

Also, I didn’t hate the movie. I just didn’t find it was very good. But since everything seems to be working in it’s favor, I found it weird that I just didn’t like it that much.

Final note (I promise): Academy Awards don’t really mean much in the sense not being nominated and not having won one don’t mean much, but on the other hand, while there have been definite misses, awards are still an indicator of quality, even if they aren’t proof.

Okay, I lied about that one being the last note: Just a weird warning here. The ‘a’ on my keyboard is quite loose currently, so I might miss a few a’s here and there in the text if I don’t catch them on time. Sorry, if this affects the readability of this text. But I guess we’ll be fine since it’s only the fourth most common letter in English. Or at least that’s what I remember from a basic cryptography course from back in the day (‘etoain’ is the six first letters and yes, I did do this around the Napoleonic Wars when this was still relevant).

The movie is directed by Guillermo del Toro, who is behind Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth. He has been able to make these genre movies, which have been able to break into the mainstream and even into awards contention and wins. Del Toro has a very strong style and while it might not be as distinctive as that of some other directors, the way his movies bring life to the pictures with the bright colors and set design is great.

The movie has a lot of great players in it. I mean, these are the kind of people who elevate movies. We have Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn and Willem Defoe among others. These six have a total of sixteen Oscar Nominations with two wins (Blanchett being the winner of both).

There is also a precedent that this source material works as a movie. I haven’t seen the 1947 version, but it seems to be highly regarded (and now I do want to see it).

And yet, the movie just didn’t work for me. Again, I’m not sure why, but here’s some ideas.

The movie just feels too long. What seems like the first act of a movie, which would normally be about the first quarter of the movie, is about half of it in this case and I don’t really see why. Did del Toro just wish to give room to some of the great actors he had? Maybe. Still, 150 minutes is just too much for this specific movie.

You might have noticed that I did not mention Bradley Cooper above. I did not even count his eight Oscar nominations in there (four of whic hare for acting). He is a fine actor, but the thing is that he just doesn’t know how to do the role. He always feels like a grifter. That is partly the point. He is a grifter. On the other hand, good grifters don’t feel like one or at least they shouldn’t feel like one. I guess many good grifters in real life probably do the “Nigerian Prince” thing an make sure they can get rid of those who are not gullible enough early on, but this is a movie, so he should feel more believable, especially among the carnies. (Is that PC? If not, sorry about this.)

But because of this, I’m not in any way invested in his character. I am invested in some of the other characters, but his character just isn’t very interesting. You can fix this with a good script, but…

The script is pretty bad. Everything is very much projected in the movie. Not in a clever way. You just know what’s going to happen. Pretty much every storybeat is laid out in a weird fashion. Someone explains something about the world and you know that this is going to come up. You even have an idea when they are going to come up.

Normally, this isn’t a problem. A movie can be great with even one of these elements in place, but neither of these is good enough. It would seem to me that someone other than the director and his wife should have taken a look at the script. Newlyweds might not have been exactly critical enough of each others work.

Then there’s the design, which is normally one of the stronger elements of del Toro’s movies. It just doesn’t seem to work here. Films noir just don’t seem to work with such lively colors. There was a story of a black-and-white version coming out at some point, but I don’t think I’m interested enough to see it.

All in all, this just feels very mediocre. And while I wouldn’t normally want to write about something I feel very indifferent about, I have been championing del Toro’s work ever since The Devil’s Backbone, so I would like to see him succeed. So many things about this movie works on paper, but just somehow missed the mark on film, which in itself becomes interesting to me.

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