You’ve got to wonder to what extent Guillermo del Toro sees himself in the carny con artists we meet in the opening scenes of “Nightmare Alley,” the director’s emotionally static but intriguingly self-reflective plunge into the madness of playing God for profit. Between acts ranging from the honestly crowd-pleasing – i.e. Ron Perlman’s bawdy strongman, Bruno – to the cruelly carnivorous – a frightening display of tattered dehumanization via the “geek,” the carnival crew’s prisoner – a familiar flavor of mystical entertainment entrances the audience gathered before Toni Collette’s well-practiced mentalist, Zeena, before they’re revealed for the parlor tricks that they are.
They also catch the attention of Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a brooding carnivalgoer who has just committed a grotesque act of his own. His enlistment into the carnival troupe – as well as a subsequent tutelage under an experienced but self-destructive mentalist played by a memorable David Strathairn – will kick the shambling plot into gear, as well as our anxieties over inevitable reckonings to come. Not for nothing does this movie about moral self-immolation open with a fiery crossing of the point of no return. The spark of uncertainty, then, is the same question that turns “Nightmare Alley” into a bejeweled and bloody mirror unto its creator, who has made a career out of lending a sympathetic eye towards dark entities: Does del Toro’s fascination with Stan ever actually become skepticism as the protagonist spirals ever further into irredeemability, weaponizing smooth-talker calm into vicious spiritual exploitation?
Del Toro has looked to the past for this personal inquiry, the nightmarishness of which doesn’t hit its whirlwind stride until the final third of a 140-minute runtime—a relatively tardy arrival for a director who has trafficked in the nightmarish for three decades. Aside from some key bookending scenes, his “Nightmare Alley” is a narratively faithful but stylistic reimagining of the 1947 Edmund Goulding-directed noir of the same name (both films adapt William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, this time by del Toro and Kim Morgan). The monster-whisperer behind “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak” and “The Shape of Water” knows a thing or two about crafting such elaborately deceptive designs as the ones Stan soon discovers himself to be naturally gifted at improvising; if there’s a working filmmaker who has more fully bought into the ability of the grotesque to enchant, they haven’t experienced the strokes of good fortune which have granted the Mexican director not just Oscar glory but a bigger, more lavishly produced canvas on which to amass an impressive ensemble of A-list stars before tangling them in a web of crisscrossing schemes and increasingly deadly comeuppance.
Rooney Mara’s sweetly misguided Molly and Cate Blanchett’s snakelike Lilith round out the cast’s core. Along with Zeena, they form a devil’s trident by which Stan’s worst impulses will be enabled against rich victims after he leaves the carnival, creating a small empire out of his trickery. Faintly legible in those dynamics are tinges of sexual gamesmanship and tugs at the ideological folly of making others believe they can buy their way out of eternal remorse, but these thematic wisps have a way of being snuffed out by the weightiness of Tamara Deverell’s lavishly precise sets before we can fully grasp them.
To be sure, there’s certain resonance to the contradiction of Stan attempting to outrun ambiguous past haunts within sharply constructed hallways, and this messiness occasionally breathes doom-laden energy into the movie’s most pleasurably dizzying sequences. In the most immediate of changes from the 1947 film, del Toro and Morgan have decided to foreground Stan’s self-serving interests, creating room to find delicious menace in Cooper’s eyes when he feigns goodwill at any point. What can we believe in Stan as he courts Molly at a midnight merry-go-round sojourn, or when he befriends the carnival’s most vulnerable veteran? This take on the character is one defined by suspicion where Tyrone Power’s was underscored by real-time degradation. And Cooper is most captivating when we still think there’s a chance for Stan to be saved.
It also gives a touch of urgency to a movie that’s often searching for it amid its cavernous settings and ominous eventualities. Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is outwardly menacing where Goulding’s original was comparatively dreamlike, yet for how much it feels like you’d catch a splinter if you brushed your hand across the screen, there’s also an imbalance of humor and danger that renders the whole thing a bit too silly. Granted, this is a movie that asks us to locate symbolic meaning in chickens’ heads being grotesquely bitten off, so silliness very much demands to be part of the experience. But there are more than a few would-be climactic moments where the screenplay’s thorns have been sanded down by the irony of fatal self-actualization the movie wraps itself up in from the first frame. There isn’t much suspense to feel in the mighty suspenseful-looking “Nightmare Alley,” and del Toro’s penchant for morbid decadence can only go so far when Stan’s fate seems sealed from the onset.
Dan Lausten’s lumbering camera, meanwhile, lacks intention in dialogue-driven scenes, rendering inert the interior sets which are otherwise realized with passion and detail. “Nightmare Alley’s” ambience more deliciously asserts itself in outdoor environments, where atmospheric splendor creates a corrupt mood in places where the pacing and acting isn’t able to. A blistering snowstorm reflects the psychological undoings which are afoot, for example, and an earlier sunset’s lurid fakeness appears to refract a brighter horizon for the hopeful carny gazing toward it. These are carefully tailored images, to be sure, and totally of apiece with the craftsman’s touch by which del Toro fashions the theater into his cabinet of curiosities. But more so now than ever the precision with which he sketches his characters’ journeys finds itself snagged in that cabinet’s door.
"Nightmare Alley" is rated R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language. It opens in theaters Friday.
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
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