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Bradley Cooper relaxes in a tub (like The Witcher) in Nightmare Alley.

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Why Nightmare Alley deserves to win Best Picture

Because the liars reign supreme

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

The 2022 Oscars ceremony is coming up on March 27, and 10 new movies are up for the Best Picture title: Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, and West Side Story. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and any of them might end up winning big. In the leadup to the Oscars, we’re making a case for why each of them might deserve to take the big prize. Next up: Nightmare Alley.


Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro, based on William Lindsay Gresham’s hit 1946 novel.


Much like its 2022 Oscars peer West Side Story, Nightmare Alley is the second filmed adaptation of a classic work. Like the original book, and the 1947 film starring Tyrone Power that adapted it first, Nightmare Alley follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a drifter and con man who works his way up the ranks in a carnival before striking out on a grift of his own, a mentalism act that plays to a wealthier crowd. When goaded into a battle of wits with enigmatic psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), Stanton begins to aim bigger, convincing his marks that he can help them reconnect with dead loved ones. In his hubris, Stanton constructs a downfall that’s just as dramatic as his ascent.


Director Guillermo del Toro is one of the more unlikely awards favorites to emerge over the past decade or so. A gifted fabulist who crafts dark fairy tales for adults, del Toro has come to specialize in allegorical creature features like Pan’s Labyrinth, a highly specific personal subgenre that was rewarded with a surprise 2017 Best Picture win for The Shape of Water. While Nightmare Alley is a departure from the monster movies he built his name on, it’s still a del Toro film through and through, with beguiling performances from leads Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, a rich supporting cast, and even richer production design full of practical effects and wonderfully moody lighting.


It’s easy to prefer Nightmare Alley over this year’s other nominees for purely aesthetic reasons. Free to build the dark carnival of his dreams, del Toro and production designer Tamara Deverell construct a mesmerizing world that feels lived-in and unreal at the same time. But Nightmare Alley also has a thematic resonance that can’t be ignored. The film makes a compelling case for its 2021 take on 1940s noir — a hypnotic work about lies and liars, Nightmare Alley is a film perfectly suited for a disillusioned moment where liars abound, and so many ears seem willing to receive their fictions.


Nightmare Alley is a slow-burn noir about a sour guy getting worse. The methodical downward spiral of its pacing can make it difficult to get through, and its characters are opaque in a way that can be difficult to parse on a first viewing. Ultimately, Nightmare Alley is a challenging film to watch and think about, and some of that may fall on the filmmakers for the way they prioritize style over clarity — its characters’ knotty psychology can leave viewers with the dizzying feeling that not enough is happening, and also too much. While that’s arguably by design, the counter-argument is just as valid — especially when the film expands on the prior adaptation in some compelling directions, but leaves other parts of the story, like Rooney Mara’s Molly Cahill, woefully underexplored.


Bradley Cooper and David Strathairn have a cigarette off-stage in the film Nightmare Alley Photo: Kerry Hayes/20th Century Studios

There’s a lot to be said about Nightmare Alley’s visual aspects, but Nathan Johnson’s rich and haunting score should not be ignored. It’s a sweeping, lush sonic texture to match the film’s production design. The score is another corridor for viewers to get lost in during Nightmare Alley’s gradual descent into despair — one that also stands quite well on its own, should you want to cultivate an eerie vibe in your home.


Nightmare Alley is currently available to stream on Hulu and HBO Max. For the other nominees, check out our streaming guide to every 2022 Oscar nominee.

The rest of the series:

Why Don’t Look Up deserves to win Best Picture
Why The Power of the Dog deserves to win Best Picture
Why West Side Story deserves to win Best Picture
Why Belfast deserves to win Best Picture
Why King Richard deserves to win Best Picture
Why Dune deserves to win Best Picture
Why Licorice Pizza deserves to win Best Picture
Why CODA deserves to win Best Picture
Why Drive My Car deserves to win Best Picture