Synopsis – An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.
My Take – Like myself, fans of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro always anxiously await the arrival of his new project, after all the Mexican director is one of few filmmakers who is able to move between different genres with such fluent effectiveness.
From art house horror to tackling Hollywood blockbusters and superhero materials to vicious fairy tale lands, his films are always driven by stylish atmospheres, a certain fantastical creepiness, and odd looking characters, but backed by the extraordinarily talented filmmaker’s distinct approach to surprise us all the time.
Surprisingly, his first follow-up to his Oscar winning The Shape of Water (2017), marks a significant departure for the filmmaker, as it contains no supernatural or science fiction elements, but instead is a straight noir embroiled in a psychological thriller. Whereas his previous works saw director del Toro conjure up vampires, fairies, aliens and sea monsters, here the monstrosity of character and behavior on display is simply just human.
Based on a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, which was first brought to the screen by Edmund Goulding in 1947 and starred Tyrone Power, director del Toro‘s adaption, which he co-wrote with Kim Morgan, is rooted in a recognizable, if heightened, reality about the brief rise of a handsome hustler from low level carnival employee to a highly paid showman.
Sure, considering the current theatrical landscape, the film is slow paced and burdened by a 150 minutes run time, but it never comes close to ruining the film as a spectacle, as the striking and absorbing visuals alone make the big screen viewing worthwhile.
Beginning in 1939, the story follows Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a natural-born conman who after burning down his Midwestern home, takes a lowly job at a traveling carnival. Stan soon learns the tricks of the trade from the carnival’s owner Clem (Willem Dafoe), and becomes close friends with Madame Zeena (Toni Collette), a clairvoyant whose act is based on an elaborate code cooked up with her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn). Confident that he has a profitable future in mind-reading, Stan approaches fellow performer Molly (Rooney Mara), with promise of love and a two-person act away from the carnival.
While their Master Stanton act in the city quickly catches on, Stan’s path to success takes a dangerous turn when he encounters Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist who is at first skeptical and more interested in poking holes in his act. But before long, their matching of wits results in a proposed partnership, and a dangerous scam of swindling the rich and elite out of their beloved money.
Like every other del Toro directorial, despite appearing to be disturbing and creepy, the film is gloriously stylish and alluring. You feel enmeshed by the atmosphere here whether in the tawdry but colorful carnival opening scenes or the art decor apartments, hotels and offices that dominate the second half of the film. His subtle use of weather, particularly snow, as Stan becomes more villainous, is especially impressive.
He is aided by Dan Laustsen‘s stunning cinematography, and some utterly gorgeous production-design work. The tableau created by all that combined craft and care, imbues the film with a dark, dangerous, even horrific flavor that just oozes off the screen.
All of that works in the service of the tragic and judgmental story about arrogance, greed, and guilt. The story is lurid, lustful, and entertaining in a tragic sort of way, as it shows that the system just exists to exploit the weak minded, whether through carnival freak shows, illusionists, spiritualists, psychiatry or capitalism. The way the system will gleefully exploit even a man at his very lowest point like the circus geek, which is central to the film’s worldview and it’s genuinely chilling.
While I can’t say that the film earn its runtime as it struggles from a bit of imbalance. Its first act is the best and brightest while the rest of the film lacks the same kind of pizazz. The sparkle of New York seems dull against the gritty, human backdrop of the carnival. Still, its themes are where the film truly shines, as director del Toro challenged himself with making something so rooted in reality, and it’s impossible to question his execution.
Performance wise, Bradley Cooper gives an attractive performance as a charismatic but ultimately wicked anti-hero. Here, Cooper is terrific as Stan, perfectly encapsulating the idea that the smooth-talking showman on the outside masks a hollow shell, devoid of morality or conscience.
Cate Blanchett is equally good, and director del Toro sets her up as a classic film noir femme fatale, with her eyes full of cold calculation, while Rooney Mara conveys damaged innocence with subtle, heartbreaking restraint. In supporting roles,
Willem Dafoe, unsurprisingly, is fabulous as the grinning carnival boss, particularly when he casually explains to Stan just how you persuade someone to be a circus geek, while Toni Collette and David Strathairn convey the love and pity in a failed relationship excellently.
There are also good turns from Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins. On the whole, ‘Nightmare Alley’ is a gloriously stylish and visually compelling dark drama led by an impenetrable ensemble.
Directed – Guillermo del Toro
Rated – R
Run Time – 150 minutes