Director Guillermo Del Toro is known for building dark fantasy worlds in films like The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth. His latest, Nightmare Alley, takes him to a place he’s never gone before, a story based entirely in reality. That this is a reality in which characters take advantage of the tendency of suckers from all walks of life to believe a well-told fantasy also makes it his most cynical film. However, although Nightmare Alley feels removed from his fractured fairy tales, Del Toro still manages to create a compelling world – two of them in fact.
The film centers on Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a good-looking young man with a Southern drawl who boards a bus and takes it to the end of the line in order to escape his previous life. America is just emerging from the Great Depression and Stanton finds work with a traveling carnival where he becomes fascinated with the mentalist act created by Zeena (Toni Collette) and her drunken husband Pete (David Strathairn) and falls for kind-hearted Molly (Rooney Mara), who wows the crowds by absorbing electricity in her act.
It’s this first half of the film, which puts the behind-the-scenes realities of the carnies’ strange, sensational sideshow front and center, that seems especially well-suited to Del Toro’s talents. Yet, while the carnival is fascinating and the ensemble – which also includes Willem Defoe as carnival barker Clem and Ron Perlman as strong-man Bruno – is top-notch, this part of the film can’t help but feel like an extended setup.
It isn’t until Stanton leaves the carnival with Molly that the plot finally kicks into high gear, and it’s at this point that Nightmare Alley becomes a full-blown film noir. After learning some tricks from Zeena and Pete and discovering a talent for reading people, Stanton becomes convinced that he can craft his own mentalist act. But he isn’t interested in performing for the carnival’s lower class crowds. Instead, he convinces Molly to move to Buffalo, where he performs for an astonished upper-crust audience with Molly acting as his accomplice.
It’s during a performance that he meets his match: Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist. With Lilith’s help, Stanton plans to con the fabulously wealthy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), even though Zeena and Pete both warned him against exploiting his audience’s trust. Yet, Stanton’s hubris and drive prevent him from listening, setting up the movie’s tragic third act.
It’s in this second half that Nightmare Alley truly casts a spell. Stanton isn’t a particularly likable character but in Cooper’s capable hands he becomes a fascinating one. The same is true for Lilith, the film’s femme fatale. Although the movie only hints at their tragic backstories, both Cooper and Blanchett bring their characters to vivid life. Blanchett makes Lilith a force to be reckoned with and the only person in the film who truly seems to understand Stanton. Meanwhile Cooper makes Stanton a man infatuated with his own success, fatally flawed yet ultimately unknowable – even to himself.
Del Toro and Kim Morgan adapted Nightmare Alley from the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsey Gresham. The story was made for the big screen once before in 1947 and Del Toro’s film is a worthy update. Without the limitations imposed by the Hays code, this version is able to be more explicit about certain details and its modern sensibilities enable its female characters to be stronger and more assertive, making them more potent forces in Stanton’s life. Yet, the basic rhythms of film noir cause the story to feel somewhat old-fashioned, especially when it comes to Blanchett’s character, who makes an indelible impression but whose motivations remain obscure.
Like any Del Toro film, Nightmare Alley is a sight to behold. Del Toro and director of photography Dan Laustsen, production designer Tamara Deverell, and costume designer Luis Sequeira have created a gorgeous, vibrantly crafted film. Lilith’s office, in particular, is a triumph of art deco design. The movie is worth seeing for these visual elements alone, yet the story largely delivers on its promise as well, albeit in brutal, pessimistic fashion.