Parents' Guide to

Nightmare Alley

By Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 16+

Dark, brutal psychological terror from Guillermo Del Toro.

Movie R 2021 150 minutes
Nightmare Alley Poster Image

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this movie.

Community Reviews

age 17+

Based on 2 parent reviews

age 16+

Film noir but for mature teens

This is a dark, gorgeous, intense, art-deco film with the occult, carnival acts, swindling, human degradation for carnival acts, and violence to be sure, but Guillermo Del Toro's style and storytelling might win over the audience. It's a rise and fall story. I've hesitated in showing my teen kids the Shape of Water (that I loved) due to it's sex scenes but this one might do. There is one scene where Bradley Cooper is seduced in the bathtub by Toni Colette character but all you see is her hand going in the water and they kiss. You also see him kiss the Cate Blanchette character, and she opens her blouse but only to reveal her décolletage and a scar (not her breasts). You see a man degraded to biting a live chicken and find out his alcohol was laced with opium and he was drugged and degraded to get to that state then put on display for the carnival. Bradley Cooper, in fear and defense, beats a man to death. If your child can appreciate that the violence is all make-believe, and human "freak shows" used to be entertainment, and appreciates film making and is intrigued by psychology, this might work. I try to watch all the Oscar nominated films and this one is one I think my 15 1/2 year old son would like but definitely too dark and intense for my 13 year old girl. She might like Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. The only redemptive character is played by Romey Mara and she regrets the illusions and walks away from the deception.
age 18+


First half takes place in the carnival; dark, depressing, cruel. Full nudity and gory imagery. Second half is more "film noir". Not an admirable character among them. There is no redemptive value here.

Is It Any Good?

Our review:
Parents say (2 ):
Kids say (2 ):

Guillermo Del Toro's psychological fear-fest is as lush on the outside as it is diseased on the inside, a bitter, brutal dose of dark fate. (in other words, it's the opposite of the director's last film, the lovely The Shape of Water). Based on a 1946 novel (and previously filmed in 1947), Nightmare Alley is a strikingly gorgeous, expertly constructed work that doesn't go down easy and is only recommended to those with strong constitutions. The movie's biggest flaw is its inflated running time (150 minutes), which is mainly devoted to intricate details of the con game. It's interesting stuff, but it's a very long time for viewers to sit with Stan as their main entryway; he's thoroughly repellent from top to bottom. Cooper's performance is unfailingly devoted to the story, but perhaps a smidge more of his natural charisma might have been allowed to leak through to soften the blow.

Still, the movie is filled with treasures both in construction and lighting, from the deliriousness of the carnival -- as well as Dr. Ritter's ridiculously opulent office -- to virtually every single onscreen performance. Del Toro's favorite actor Ron Perlman plays a wonderful circus strongman in just a few scenes, hanging around with "Brofo the Small" (Linden Porco), who's probably one-fifth his size. And great actors like Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., and Tim Blake Nelson show up in tiny parts delivering true delights. But nothing can counterbalance the story's sense of doom. Film noir was never meant to be cheery, but it was supposed to tap into a feeling of something in the air of the United States, something lost. Nightmare Alley taps directly into the jugular.

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