The first half of Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s blood-dark jewel of an American saga, is set within the itinerant subculture of carnies, at the tail end of the Great Depression. “Folks here, they don’t make no never mind who you are or what you done,” Willem Dafoe’s carnival barker assures a newbie, Stanton Carlisle. That’s good news for Stan, who’s played by Bradley Cooper with an inscrutable chill, and who has drifted into the carnival after a long bus ride from some things he’d rather forget.
Shifting gears after the Cold War romantic fantasy The Shape of Water, del Toro burrows deep into the margins, both low and high, with his new film. His adaptation, with co-writer Kim Morgan, of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley is a more expansive version than the first film iteration of the book, a 1947 black-and-white feature that’s one of the most distinctive noirs ever made. Tyrone Power spearheaded that project, determined to leave behind the light adventure fare he was identified with and delve into more complex territory, and he delivered his finest screen performance. But audiences weren’t ready to see their silver-screen swashbuckler in antiheroic mode, an obstacle that Cooper, who has played his share of tarnished types, won’t face.
The Bottom Line
A luminous noir vision.
His performance takes a while to fully grab hold, no doubt as intended, and when it does, it’s riveting, at once alluring and repellent, holding the center of a superb cast. Not just a quick study but a coolly aggressive one, Stanton rises through the ranks of the low-rent carnival shows, with their lurid come-ons (mind-blowing creatures!) and soul-salving enticements (mind-reading psychics!). But whatever the carnies’ ruses and sleights of hand, it isn’t until Stanton becomes a star in the big city, where he meets an impossibly glamorous psychologist who’s named Lilith Ritter and played by a smooth-as-satin Cate Blanchett, that the real grifting begins.
The story opens in 1939, when the wounds of the Great War are still festering and another conflagration is on the horizon. One of Stan’s first lessons in the carnival involves the geek, whom he confronts in the House of Damnations. For a quarter, customers can witness sheer human debasement: The hopeless alcoholic who’s been lured into the job, and driven to madness, dutifully bites the head off a live chicken. (The original film’s offscreen treatment of these gruesome acts is more powerful than the graphic depiction del Toro provides.)
The barker Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), who has assembled a collection of pickled fetuses, most of them human, that he calls the Unborn Wonders of Nature, shows Stan the carnival ropes. Mind-reader Zeena (Toni Collette) shows Stan a very personal welcome, while her dipsomaniac husband, Pete (David Strathairn), warns about the dangers of believing your own lies — words of wisdom that Stan ignores. He’s focused instead on the book containing the elaborate verbal code Zeena and Pete developed for a mentalist act they no longer perform. His ambition is ignited by his attraction to Molly (Rooney Mara), who is as low-key and sincere as her high-voltage act — she’s a human conductor of electricity — is flamboyant. In a quietly wrenching throwaway line, Molly, who has been under the protective eye of Bruno (Ron Perlman), declares her virginity to Stan, but with a devastating asterisk.
Stan will find his ticket out of the carnival circuit, and with Molly he’ll create a mind-reading act, performed for the upper crust in an elegant Buffalo nightclub. If the first half of the film does a bit too much explaining about the world of the carnies, the second, set in 1941, bursts into ultra-stylized noir (and art deco splendor). Blanchett’s Lilith enters the drama as a velvet-sheathed challenger to Stan’s act, her lips blood-red and gleaming, her double entendres dusky-voiced and occasionally on the razor’s edge of camp.
Cooper’s performance hits a deeper vein as Stan recognizes a kindred spirit. “You run a racket, same as me,” he tells Lilith. In no time they’re putting her confidential knowledge of the emotional lives of Buffalo’s elite to use in pricy private consultations for the likes of a judge’s wife (Mary Steenburgen) who’s mourning her soldier son. Stan knows he’s hit the jackpot when industrialist Ezra Grindle (an almost unrecognizable Richard Jenkins, in a compelling change of pace from his usually sympathetic roles) seeks his services. Grindle is a man so wealthy and hypocritical that he believes he can buy his redemption, and who ultimately represents everything that Stan hates.
The fluent camerawork by Dan Laustsen and the designs of Tamara Deverell and Luis Sequeira create two vivid worlds, beginning with the dust and smoke of the carnival midway, with its theatrical outfits and the lights of the Ferris wheel against a middle-of-nowhere night sky. The film’s vision of snowy Buffalo, with its imposing brick edifices, is a refreshingly unfamiliar movie setting, and one that del Toro uses eloquently to convey a sense of municipal power and wealth — and of a world closing in on Stanton Carlisle precisely when he believes he has it in the palm of his hand. The interiors Deverell and her team created for this portion of the film are exquisite, notably the lush jade tones of Stan and Molly’s hotel suite and the jaw-dropping geometry of Lilith’s office, with its burnished wood paneling, a room inspired by the Weil-Worgelt Study.
Sequeira’s costumes range from the threadbare to the outré to the elegant, and by the time we find Stan in bespoke suits and smoking jackets, he has forsaken the carny code, with its sense of family and personal integrity. In Mara’s lovely and understated performance, we know that Molly doesn’t lose sight of these values.
Part of the power of Gresham’s story, and of del Toro’s film (and Edmund Goulding’s in 1947), is the recognition that shtick and showbiz trickery don’t preclude real spiritual connection. Zeena’s tarot card readings, for one, tap into Stan’s fate with an uncanny clarity (and Collette’s strong, self-knowing performance deepens that clarity). Back on the midway, Stan showed an impressive talent for reading people, but in the big city he’s been blinded by the light of his own success — not to mention the glare from Lilith’s mirthless smile.
Stan is an unlikable character, and one who’s offered no redemption in this telling, whose ending is truer to the source material than the Tyrone Power movie was (it was saddled with an obviously tacked-on note of hope, imposed by the studio). If we ever root for Stan, it’s only in moments when he’s set against Lilith’s ice-queen evil. Cooper never plays for audience sympathy, making the film’s final moments all the more raw and powerful.
The screenplay can at times be too literal, but Nathan Johnson’s score never fails, creating a potent fusion of the majestic and the uneasy, and encapsulating the dueling impulses in del Toro’s vision. With a semi-playful nod to the 1945 film Detour and more than a few rain-drenched streets, Nightmare Alley pays tribute to noir. But it’s also its own dark snow globe, luminous and finely faceted, and one of del Toro’s most fluent features.