Nightmare Alley is director Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to his Academy Award winning film The Shape of Water. That movie, a love letter to the monster movies of the fifties (particularly 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) was infused with modern themes of inclusion and acceptance, took home the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. Del Toro’s latest is a remake of the 1947 film directed by Edmung Goulding and starring Tyrone Power. If you’re seen it before, this version will feel very familiar. (If you haven’t, I recommend watching it either before or after you see the current version as a fun film study exercise. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!)
The movie is a mildly entertaining diversion, made with the care, craftsmanship and weird sensibility typical of del Toro’s films (Hellraiser, Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos). Unlike his best work, the movie curiously fails to engage either the heart or the imagination. Some of the blame can be leveled at Cooper’s lead performance as Stan, a drifter who latches onto a carnival and becomes a mentalist. Fortunately, the movie has style to spare and several of the supporting performances (Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn) are very good. Ultimately, Nightmare Alley is still little more than an eye-catching curiosity of minor consequence. But nobody does eye-catching curiosities like del Toro. Mildly recommended.
Del Toro’s movie begins with Stan (Bradley Cooper) stashing a wrapped body underneath the floorboards of a ramshackle house, which he then sets on fire. (This begs the question of why he would bother with the first step at all.) Stan takes the first bus out of Nowheresville USA to the end of the line, and wanders over to the carnival nearby. After checking out the geek show, Stan agrees to help carnival owner Clem (Willem Dafoe) with tearing down the big tent and capturing the geek. (Geeks tend to go rogue after one too many chicken dinners, I think.)
After earning Clem’s trust, Stan strikes up a relationship with Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her husband/assistant Pete (David Strathairn). They have an open relationship, and Pete has no problems with Zeena helping Stan “find the soap” during his bath. Pete’s main interest is booze, which provides an opening for Stan to become Zeena’s assistant. He also learns of a coded language system Pete and Zeena used years ago in a mentalist act. Pete warns Stan to avoid using the system for “spook shows” (where the mentalist pretends to talk to the dead). Pete says that spook shows are an affront to God and are to be avoided at all costs. (You know where this is going, right?)
Stan takes a liking to Molly (Rooney Mara), a performer who conducts electricity. Stan tries to win Molly’s affections by devising a new act for her, but she resists his advances. (The onscreen pairing of Cooper and Mara produced no discernible sparks that I could detect.) After Pete accidentally dies from wood alcohol poisoning, Zeena gives Stan the book that details the coded language system. Stan and Zeena head for the city and establish themselves as a successful mentalist act. They catch the eye of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who tries to uncover the fakery behind the act. Stan successfully wards off her attempt to expose the act as fakery, then surprisingly launches into a “spook show” with another patron. Molly pleads with Stan to confess that it was all an act, but Stan sees it as the perfect scheme to fleece rich people. He enlists Dr. Ritter in his plans, including those with the wealthy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). Nightmare Alley telegraphs its film noir leanings from the start, so I’m not giving anything away by saying things don’t turn out the way Stan envisioned them.
My main issue with Nightmare Alley is the character of Stan. A typical film noir anti-hero, he has a dark past and a black soul to match, a man who’s meager upbringing left him with a persistent sense of lack that guides every move he makes. This is probably how Gresham depicted him in his novel, as a man lacking moral compass who is driven entirely by self-interest and self-preservation. And if del Toro set out to be faithful to Gresham’s work, this change makes sense.
As portrayed by Cooper, however, Stan is mostly glum and cheerless. Cooper has delivered excellent performances so many times before that I was surprised by how much I disliked his performance in this movie. I think he was trying to play Stan as hard-boiled and guarded, and it just didn’t work for me. Cooper just can’t pull off a character who is unsympathetic and likeable at the same time. In the end, when Stan’s (very) dark fate was sealed, I honestly didn’t feel sorry for him at all.
For most other movies, a flawed leading performance is usually fatal. Fortunately, the movie has several great character actors on board to enliven the proceedings. Colette’s Zeena brings life whenever she’s on screen, and the movie definitely could have used more of her. Dafoe hams wonderfully as carnival owner Clem. As Dr. Ritter, Blanchett is classic movie glamour writ large. The movie’s wattage increases tenfold whenever she’s on screen. (Cooper is neatly rendered invisible whenever the two share a scene together.) Blanchett is so ridiculously beautiful in this movie, I honestly felt if I were ever to meet her gaze, I would burst into flames.
Strathairn plays Pete with the same broken-down, weather-beaten vulnerability he’s put to such effective use in other roles (see Nomadland). Of all the characters in the movie, Pete’s is the one that felt the most real. Mara’s Molly is beautiful but bland, more a porcelain figure of wish fulfillment than a real living person. Her pairing with Cooper felt awkward, and the lack of chemistry between the two is painfully obvious throughout the movie. Frankly, Stan’s interest in the virginal Molly over the more experienced (and much more fun) Zeena came off as quaint, one of several plot points from the source novel that I wished del Toro had chosen not to be faithful to.
Richard Jenkins is great as the fiercely entitled Ezra Grindle, and Holt McCallany brings his law enforcement sensibilities to great effect as Grindle’s right-hand man Anderson. (Netflix, please bring back Mindhunter!) Ron Perlman doesn’t do a heck of a lot as strong man Bruno, but he’s a favorite of del Toro so I gave him a pass. Tim Blake Nelson turns up at the end and makes what is a completely throwaway role memorable.
Even though Nightmare Alley has an R rating, the movie is surprisingly chaste. Del Toro depicts Stan’s relationships with Zeena and Dr. Ritter as having a sexual component, but the movie features no nudity or sex scenes. I would have enjoyed the movie the same even if I hadn’t seen the geek bite the head off of a (fake) chicken, or the bloody outcome of two murders that happen near the end. Considering the sexual openness of The Shape of Water, it feels strange to say that Nightmare Alley lacks passion.
The sets in Nightmare Alley are very impressive, in particular the carnival and Dr. Ritter’s office being the most noteworthy. DP Dan Laustsen gives everything a nice, crisp look, allowing it to fully absorb the rich details of the various sets. As a movie heavily tilted towards style over substance, recognition on several technical merits would definitely be warranted, including cinematography, production design and costumes.
Last but not least, I should state that I might have responded to del Toro’s version differently if I hadn’t seen Goulding’s version beforehand. That movie’s take on Stan, as well as how Tyrone Power portrays him, couldn’t be more different from Del Toro and Cooper’s version. How two movies based on the same story end up feeling so completely different is quite the parlor trick, I must admit.