Patrick Jensen’s review published on Letterboxd:
He's done it again. Guillermo del Toro once again proves that he's a magnificent director who's capable of shining through, even in a film that isn't as rooted in fantasy and magical realism as his previous work has usually been. Nightmare Alley is not just a triumph as a tribute to golden age noir titles, but also as a tragic story of a man wholly blind to his own flaws and the destructive effect that has on everyone around him.
As you would expect with an amazing cast as this film has, the acting is absolutely amazing. Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, David Straithairn, Richard Jenkins and Cate Blanchett all get their moments to shine, and they all seize them with aplomb. However, it is Bradley Cooper's performance that shines the brightest for me. The hubris and narcissism expressed through nearly every single action and line delivered from Stanton Carlisle is portrayed with utter conviction and, to quote from the film itself, panache, whilst Cooper still subtly hints at the extreme vulnerability that Carlisle remains highly guarded about. On top of all that, the plot is thankfully set up in a way that gradually exposes Carlisle ambitions and the darker aspects to them that drag almost everyone around him down to his twisted worldview, especially regarding the people he exploit on his ascent to success. Combine all this with the excellent cinematography by fellow Dane Dan Laustsen, a thrilling score by Nathan Johnson and the absolutely excquisite production design by Tamara Deverell, and you have one of the most interesting and highly-engaging character studies of a narcissistic mind. Plus, Guillermo del Toro keeps a tightly focused directorial hand throughout the entire daunting runtime, ensuring that the film never collapsed under its runtime. That is something I can only be in utter admiration of.
The only real gripe with the film is with Rooney Mara's Molly. Mara is giving a fine performance, but her character feels rather undercooked. I know she's mostly there to be a trophy girlfriend for Carlisle, but most of the time, she came off as someone who was too comfortable with the easy success that she and Carlisle gained together. I thought it would have been interesting how she suffered under his quest for greed and escape from personal trauma, as I never got the impression that she ever really knew him, but loved him nonetheless. Also, when you have Rooney Mara playing this role, you better give her something more interesting to do than just being in the background.
In conclusion, Nightmare Alley is a film that I found a lot to love about. While I admittedly wasn't as excited about the film right after watching it, it is definitely one that gave me a lot of food for thought afterwards. It also helps to having watched this with my older sister, who noticed a lot of things I wasn't initially good at giving the film credit for.