With a name like Nightmare Alley and directed by Guillermo del Toro, those unfamiliar with the source material might assume it’s a horror movie. That’s what I thought before the trailer rolled around last September, but there is actually no ghost, ghoulish creatures or supernatural elements in this film. That does not mean there is no evil presence however, as the human heart can be utterly grotesque and vile.
Right from its opening scene, there’s a certain bleakness, a foul stench of the seedy world we’re about to enter. The carnival setting is inherently kooky and mysterious filled with strange, shadowy characters, but for a down-on-his-luck fellow like Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), it could also mean a new opportunity. After a long bus ride, Stan arrives at the traveling carnival with just a bag and a radio in his possession. Before long, he enlist a job as a carny with its owner Clem (Willem Dafoe) and help him track down an escaping carnival geek.
There’s a certain charm and affability about Stan (which Cooper portrays with such ease) that people immediately opens up to him, even share their secrets. Clem reveals how he lures drunks and drug addicts and deprave them to a point where they become a sideshow subject (carnival geek). Stan ends up working with a clairvoyant act Madame Zeena (the chameleonic Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). Zeena finds Stan ‘easy on the eyes’ and seduces him, while Pete takes a shine on Stan and even begin to teach him their trick they use to fool people into thinking that Zeena is actually a gifted mind reader.
I have to say the first part of the film drags quite a bit. I mean, a slo-burn build is expected in a noir, but this feels plodding and lethargic, and the gloomy vibe doesn’t help either. One would think the carnival world would be exciting, but I remember feeling that I want to escape this dark and dreary environment. Well, so does the protagonist. As Stan learns more about the trick of the trade, he’s rearing to leave and start a new life. He manages to cajole a pretty but wholesome carnival performer Molly (Rooney Mara) to start their own show together. Del Toro’s perennial favorite Ron Perlman plays Bruno who’s protective of Molly, as does his sidekick The Major (Mark Povinelli), but soon she’s out of their grasp.
Fast forward two years later—Stan is now a successful mentalist for the Chicago elite, with Molly as his assistant. Using the knowledge he learns from Zeena and Pete, Stan uses their technique of coded language and ‘cold reading’ which is basically deductive exercises that psychics and fortune tellers use in their performance. The energy of the film starts to pick up at this point, and it gets even more interesting when Cate Blanchett shows up as psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter who attempts to expose them during one of their shows. For a while, Stan’s scheming game turns out fruitful, especially once he teams up with Lilith who feeds him information about powerful men like judges and tycoons. With Lilith’s insider info, Stan manages to deceive these powerful men that he has a gift to summon the dead, but at what cost? At the heart of Del Toro’s tale of greed and treachery is a cautious morality tale… Stan clearly ignores Pete’s wise words about not leading people on about the ‘spook show’ they’re doing. ‘You can’t outrun God,’ he tells him adamantly.
Cooper showcases he’s a solid leading man, commanding the screen with cocksure swagger and restless ambition. There’s a moment where Molly has an argument following a show and from the moment she looks at him, there’s a palpable dismay in her eyes knowing that nothing will ever be enough for the man she loves. Mara, with her alabaster skin and mournful eyes, is perfectly cast as Molly who remains down to earth despite all the success.
Meanwhile, Blanchett relishes on playing an alluring femme fatale. She always looks fantastic in period clothes, and she’s ravishing in form-fitting 1940s gowns and suits channeling Lauren Bacall in her delivery. I have to admit there’s a bit too much scenery-chewing on her part, and some of her lines comes off pretty corny. Still, it’s always enjoyable seeing her play a Machiavellian villainess and Stan definitely meets his match in Lilith in her slick, cunning ways. The one bit of casting I wasn’t too wild about is Richard Jenkins who’s usually a reliable actor, but I have a hard time buying him as a dangerous mob boss type as he just isn’t that menacing. I feel like I’ve been seeing Holt McCallany everywhere these days. Here he plays another stock character as Jenkins’s loyal bodyguard.
As with all of Del Toro’s movies, his visual flair makes for a stylish adaptation. He clearly loves period pieces as he captures the era beautifully with meticulous attention to detail. Lilith’s art deco office is particularly lavish and glossy. No doubt she caters to high-end clientele with an office like that. For a film about manipulation and deception, the filmmakers are committed to realism in its storytelling. The carnival itself doesn’t look and feel artificial because the filmmakers actually built a carnival tent outdoors instead of shooting the film in a soundstage. It creates an eerie and chilling atmosphere that fits the narrative.
I love that moment the carnival staff pulls down the tent and the way the camera captures that moment. Del Toro collaborates with DP Dan Laustsen who also shot the Shape of Water and Crimson Peak. Costume designer Luis Sequeira does a spectacular job here, contrasting the clothes of the common folks at the carnival and the fashion of Stan’s wealthy clients and cohorts. The production design, costume design and cinematography seem to be a shoo-in at next year’s Oscars nominations.
I haven’t seen the original with Tyrone Power in the lead role, but Del Toro’s version isn’t necessarily a remake of the classic, but more of a re-adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham‘s novel based on a script he co-wrote with Kim Morgan (I read that the two are recently married). For a director who has spent a great deal of his career making scary-looking monsters sympathetic, he doesn’t offer much redemption when it comes to corrupt human beings. The depravity of the human soul is in full display as most characters here are sleazy con-artists, though it’s a testament to Cooper’s charm that I can’t completely abhor Stan even at his worst. There’s still a layer of vulnerability to him despite his vice. Stan’s journey is quite a tragic one… a seemingly shrewd man who’s good at reading people, but who fails to decipher himself and the person whom he places his trust.
The finale is pretty predictable but it’s played out in a pretty suspenseful way that it was still thrilling to watch. It’s always nice to see a good payoff that comes full circle, and the ending is one that lingers in my mind long after seeing the film. Despite the sluggish start, Nightmare Alley is a pretty solid thriller with spectacular visuals that warrants a trip to the cinema. I might even rewatch this again at some point to unpack some of the intricate layers hidden beneath some of the flashy, pulpy shenanigans.
Have you seen Guillermo del Toro’s NightMare Alley? What do you think?