Nightmare Alley tells the sordid story of a conman who discovers he has a gift for manipulation while working at a carnival, and takes his act to high society and starts convincing people he can talk to the dead. But if there’s any affinity for seediness to director Guillermo del Toro, it doesn’t come through on screen. The film’s bursts of violence are genuinely bracing — a face bashed in, a skull shattered, and the signature act of animal mutilation performed by a carnival geek, a figure of abject degradation who haunts the film’s ill-fated protagonist. But for a pulpy tale of addiction and desperate lives on the fringes, Nightmare Alley is otherwise depressingly short on actual darkness and discomfort. It doesn’t soft-pedal its material so much as it suffocates it with the meticulousness of its choices, with every aspect of its squalor noticeably art-directed. It’s the film equivalent of a fake dive bar where the dingy interiors are painstakingly designed, the drinks cost 15 bucks, and the vintage cigarette machine in the back dispenses miniature birds by some local artist instead of smokes.
Nightmare Alley is based on a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham which has been brought to screen once before, in 1947, in a black-and-white film starring Tyrone Power, a matinee idol who wanted to prove he could tackle more challenging material. This new take on the book stars Bradley Cooper, who has nothing he needs to prove, but who doesn’t seem to be the actor the movie actually wants in the role of Stan Carlisle, a man who wanders his way into work on a sideshow. The screenplay, which del Toro wrote with his wife, the critic turned screenwriter Kim Morgan, insists on Stan’s callow youth, with characters repeatedly referring to the 46-year-old as “kid” and “young buck.” It’s been a year with some notable age-related casting choices — from Ben Platt’s disastrous reprisal of his Broadway role in Dear Evan Hansen to Sandra Bullock’s heroic decision to not just play the older sister of a 25-year-old in The Unforgivable, but to also appear as the character in flashbacks set 20 years earlier. The discordance in Nightmare Alley is striking mostly because it’s so unnecessary, present only because the movie seems worried about gaps between its present and the repeated flashes back to Stan dragging a body through a house he then sets on fire. But Stan is someone who pretends to be historyless even as everything he does is due to his past — something that would hold true no matter how old he is.
Stan finds a place for himself as a barker for and sometimes lover to Zeena (Toni Collette), a psychic who, despite her weakness for handsome faces, is devoted to her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), with whom she used to perform in much glitzier venues. In their heyday, they did a mentalism routine in which Pete, blindfolded on stage, would identify objects offered up to Zeena by members of the audience. In between romancing the sylphlike Molly (Rooney Mara), Stan angles to learn the codes that Pete created to enable Zeena to cue him as to what she was holding. But what really intrigues Stan is the moment when Zeena cold reads someone in the crowd in order to cover a lull in her act, convincing the woman that her late loved one is there with her. It’s what the carnival workers refer to as a “spook show” and consider a line that shouldn’t be crossed. But Stan, who soon demonstrates he has a talent for cold reading himself, decides to break off and start his own act, and convinces Molly to come with him.
It’s unclear if Stan woos Molly out of affection or a desire to use her, just as it’s unclear whether Stan’s inevitable forays into spiritualist grifting are born of a desire for money or the thrill of having people under his sway. It’s not Cooper’s fault that Stan never really jolts to life — the “kid” tic aside, the part allows him to lean into that touch of slickness that’s always been an aspect of his beauty, and that allows him to exude untrustworthiness. But Stan’s written more as a set of notes than as a person, with his daddy issues and his terrible decisions. When he meets the silkily menacing psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, doing a bit she’s done before) during a performance in Buffalo, he enlists her as a source of personal information about potential wealthy targets, though she as much as tells him he can’t trust her, and he has no idea what motivates her to be his confidant. Maybe Stan’s just not as good as he thinks he is, or maybe he’s harboring an unacknowledged desire to self-immolate, but mostly he seems to make a series of wildly unwise calls because the movie wants to usher him toward its admittedly terrific ending.
At least Nightmare Alley has that going for it, as well as its beauty, which extends equally to its sets and its cast members, with Mara’s bloodless pallor contrasted against red costumes, and Blanchett draped in satin blouses and cinched into the finest of femme fatale skirt suits. The film is set on the cusp of World War II, and makes the most of the tail end of Art Deco dominance in its interiors — Lilith’s office, with its caramel wood inlaid walls and windows opening up to the winter, is particularly gorgeous. Nothing looks at all lived in, which is fine when the camera is gliding through the cathedral-like hallways of the compound belonging to the gangster-like millionaire Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), but is hopelessly distancing when spending time in the ragtag world of the carnies, where grit and grime look like more of a fashion choice than the result of trudging through muck. This sumptuous stylization wouldn’t be bad if it wasn’t so at odds with the film’s desire to evoke B-movie scrappiness. Instead, it reinforces the sensation that this is all an Epcot Center recreation of trailing Depression-era struggles. When del Toro made Crimson Peak in 2015, pamphlets explaining what gothic romance was were passed out before press screenings. Nightmare Alley wears its designation of noir just as prominently, as though genre were not a means of classification but a goal that the film was laboriously reverse engineered to meet.
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