A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Terrible behavior (murder, stealing, betrayal, etc.) has consequences, sometimes enormous ones.
Positive Role Models
All of the charaters are devious backstabbers, with the possible exception of Molly, who seems kind and loyal to her carnival family, though she doesn't really act with any agency.
All of the main and secondary characters are White; a few background characters are played by actors of color. A little person appears in a few scenes and -- as one of the carnival owners -- is empowered, although he still must work the grounds. (Thankfully without resorting to any demeaning acts.) Women are generally not the driving force of the story, except for Dr. Ritter, but (like the hero), she's pretty loathsome.
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Violence & Scariness
Guns and shooting. A woman shoots her husband and then herself. Blood spurts/smears, gory wounds. Characters die/dead bodies shown. Violent punching. A character is punched to death; bloody, gory face. Person pulls shard of bone from knuckle. Character's head hit with a rock. Strangling with phone cord. Person hit deliberately by car and killed; bloody corpse seen. Medically vulnerable character murdered by leaving windows open and letting cold in. Carnival performer bites the head off of chicken, blood shown. House on fire. A dead baby with physical differences is preserved in a jar. Various animals preserved in jars. Carnival act in which a person is shocked by an electrical jolt. Woman slapped. Arguing. A man is said to have forced a woman to miscarry. A man confesses to having "hurt many, many women."
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
The main character has sex with three partners over the course of the movie. Brief full-frontal male nudity (bathing in tub). Married woman reaches into the tub; suggestion of sexual stimulation under the water. Woman opens her coat to reveal a scar on her chest and partial breasts; another character kisses the scar. Kissing. Sex-related dialogue.
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Strong language includes uses of "f--k," "motherf----r," "bulls---," "bitch," "bastard," "balls." Uses of "G-damn," "Oh God," "Jesus," "Christ Almighty," "My God" and "Oh Christ."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
The main character avoids drinking for a while and then becomes a serious alcoholic. A secondary character is portrayed as having an alcohol dependency; he's seen drinking and drunk. Frequent cigarette smoking. Several scenes of social drinking. Carnival owner gives workers alcohol laced with opium.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Nightmare Alley is a neo-noir from director Guillermo Del Toro. It's extremely dark and vicious but worth watching for the director's mature fans. Expect to see disturbing images, guns and shooting, murders, blood and gore, violent punching (including a man being punched to death), strangling, someone getting run over by a car, and a carnival performer biting the head off of a chicken. The main character (Bradley Cooper) is briefly seen fully naked while in a bathtub; a woman reaches into the water and begins stimulating him. He has three sexual partners over the course of the movie. He kisses a scar on a woman's chest, and her breasts are partly visible. There's also kissing and some sex-related dialogue. Language is strong, with uses of "f--k," "motherf----r," "bulls--t," "bitch, and more. Characters smoke cigarettes frequently, and two characters are portrayed as having an alcohol dependency. There's also a reference to opium-laced alcohol. Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett co-star. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails.
Is It Any Good?
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.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.