'Nightmare Alley' Is Overlong but Full of Grotesque Delights
Guillermo del Toro's latest movie swaps supernatural monsters for the human kind.
Mexican horror master Guillermo del Toro has made a three-decade career spinning tales of the otherworldly and the monstrous, so it was more than intriguing to hear that his latest film, Nightmare Alley, has no supernatural elements at all. The movie, co-written by del Toro and film historian Kim Morgan, is an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's classic 1946 noir novel about a crooked carny who hoodwinks people by pretending to have telepathic mentalist powers. It's a dirty, grungy parable of greed and obsession that has been adapted once before as a 1947 drama starring Tyrone Power. Though del Toro has made a name for himself in Hollywood thanks to his frequent use of practical effects and increasingly bizarre creatures, what he really seems to love is genre itself, playing with it, tooling around in its dark nooks and crannies, creating something unexpected from something familiar. As his first feature foray into a story set firmly in our world—the real world—Nightmare Alley is a little too uneven to match the heights of del Toro's best work, but it keeps enough of his bold, grotesque aesthetics to get under your skin nonetheless.
In 1939, grifter Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) takes a job as a carny at a traveling circus and quickly ingratiates himself with the other carnival residents, developing an attraction to a young girl, Molly (Rooney Mara), who pretends to channel electricity, and learning the craft of clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her drunk husband Pete (David Strathairn), who use cold reading to mimic supernatural powers of perception. When tragedy strikes, Stan and Molly leave the carnival and hone the craft Stan has stolen from Pete. He fashions himself into The Great Stanton, a mentalist who claims to contact the dead, clad in a tuxedo and a blindfold with a golden eye embroidered onto it. During one of his shows, he encounters the psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (an absolutely stunning Cate Blanchett), who tests his abilities, and the two of them make a deal to use her knowledge of her powerful and famous patients to better fake Stan's "abilities." But some of her patients are more dangerous than others, and Stan's addiction to his newfound influence lands him in deeper, darker waters than he anticipated.
To reiterate, there are no monsters in this movie—except for the human ones. The circus itself, which comprises the first third of the movie, is a carnival of the macabre and the weird, making no mistake about the hard-luck squalor this collection of societal rejects lives in (which often put me in mind of Katherine Dunn's circus-set masterpiece Geek Love). Whether you find enough to enjoy in this section will depend on your mileage for circus stories, but the really good stuff doesn't start until Stan journeys into society and meets Dr. Ritter, every inch the femme fatale whose sheer screen presence dominates the entire movie. Her syrupy, regal line deliveries alone are enough to distract from the fact that the final message the movie builds to is muddled, though that, too, is saved by a killer final scene. Throughout it all, the movie uses the motif of the "geek," a traditional circus attraction in the form of a person who eats the heads off of chickens for the guests' entertainment, to mark Stan's eventual descent into madness.
But—and it's as if he can't help himself—del Toro uses the sets themselves as his creature designs, employing the same care and attention to detail as he does for his monsters. In one early scene, a group of characters are searching for another through a system of half-raised circus tents, the striped fabric of the big top whooshing back and forth hypnotically in the breeze, as if it's breathing. Pieces of machinery that make up the labyrinthine fun house creak and groan like they're alive. Dr. Ritter's office is a marvel of mahogany and brass, an art-deco explosion that frames every slinky, sharp-edged outfit Blanchett graces us with.
And it's fortunate that the movie is stunning to look at, since it noticeably drags in its back half—two and a half hours is an endurance test no matter how good a movie is, and for a director with mostly slam dunks, this is a strange misfire. It's difficult for me to predict how Nightmare Alley will be received. Those who don't usually count themselves huge del Toro fans might be won over by the realism, while his diehards might long for the paranormal stuff. His whole "thing" just hits harder when the plot hinges on the intersection between human and inhuman. This morality play can't help but feel a bit too simplistic for someone who once won an Oscar for his romance between a woman and a fish-person.