'Nightmare Alley' review: Del Toro tackles a different type of misunderstood creature
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Fresh off his Oscar for Best Director and Picture with “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo Del Toro returns to the realm of macabre and misunderstood creatures in his remake of the 1947 noir “Nightmare Alley.” Toying with his own conventions and working at the same pace and level of his previous efforts minus a Hellboy or Amphibian Man to anchor the fantasy elements, Del Toro explores a different type of monster: the human soul. Stacked with an incredible roster of A-listers playing circus freaks, carnies, and clairvoyant muses, “Nightmare Alley” is a stunningly crafted (if a bit elongated and misguided) piece about history repeating itself.
Bradley Cooper is exceptional playing Stanton Carlise, a drifter who talks his way into working for a traveling carnival circa 1939. He studies the craft and becomes indoctrinated to the culture after learning the trade secrets from veteran performers Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn) and he takes a liking to Molly (Rooney Mara) who he convinces to elope and take their act on tour where they can dupe suckers into forking over cash for false psychic readings. Del Toro is firmly in command as he slowly lays the pavement for the couple’s moderately successful traveling gig which, after a two year time jump, has become a massive hit, but their relationship has seriously dwindled.
Their act, however, is put into question during a performance by licensed psychologist Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett - marvelous) who immediately calls their bluff (Stanton and Molly’s primary seller is labeled a “spook show” where they pretend to communicate with the dead). Lucky for them, Lillith wants a piece of the pie and gives her vulnerable patients to Stanton on a silver platter in exchange for a percentage of the haul. But their ruthless con lands them at the feet of a wealthy tycoon (played with gusto by Richard Jenkins) who isn’t somebody you want to wrong.
Del Toro is a master of character and every minor detail and tweak is always specifically laid out for audience members to find (some are easier to locate than others). Here, the merry-go-round persistence of Stanton creates a fascinating portrait worth observation. He’s a man obviously trying to reshape his destiny, but the underlying subtext of any noir is that no matter how much you try and erase the past, it’ll find ways to come back and haunt you. The enigma of Stanton is eerily fascinating and Cooper, in one of his more sophisticated performances, sculpts an image of an individual on the brink of collapse but so close to the promised land. The last shot is revelatory and hard to shake.
It helps that “Nightmare Alley” fills itself with enough personality and characters to overcome a sluggish start, 150-minute runtime and an inherent lack of chemistry among the leads. It borders on self-indulgent (at times it feels like Del Toro knows he’s playing to the fanbase and not reaching beyond those demographics) and seems to lose momentum heading into the final stretch. In the end, Del Toro lands the mark, offering an intriguing adventure that rewards patience and gives you plenty to think about. The filmmaker loves opening puzzle boxes and “Nightmare Alley,” for all its irregularities, has a few tricks up its sleeve.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY opens in theaters Friday December 17th