Guillermo’s del Toro’s latest film “Nightmare Alley” is an admirable genre piece whose strength mainly lies in mood and details rather than the story itself. There are several weak parts in the story which could be improved more in my inconsequential opinion, and I am still wondering whether del Toro is a bit too softy and sensitive for the deeply cynical and pessimistic heart of darkness inside the story, but the movie itself is still a visual pleasure wonderful enough to forgive a number of small but notable shortcomings.
The movie is based on the novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, which was already made into a movie starring Tyrone Power in 1947. Although it was considerably limited by the production code of its era, that rather overlooked classic noir film, which was thankfully released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion in last summer, is still compelling to watch for many reasons including one of the best performances in Power’s career, and its darkly ironic tale of human wickedness and weakness remains fresh and timeless because, well, our human nature still are as flawed and indecent as ever.
Like the 1947 version, the movie, which is also set in US around the early 1940s, begins with how its opportunistic hero finds his calling in a wandering carnival troupe. Not long after arriving at some place by a bus, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) just takes a look into one of the main attractions of the troupe along with many others, but then he finds himself getting hired as a temporary worker when the troupe folds everything and then is ready to move to somewhere else, and he gets to know and learn more about its seedy business mainly from its unscrupulous manager Clement “Clem” Hoately (Willem Dafoe), who does not flinch at all from any opportunity to earn a bit more.
Meanwhile, Stan also comes to befriend a number of various colorful figures in the troupe. Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette), who works as a clairvoyant with some assistance from her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), lets Stan participate in her main act, and the movie has some fun with how Zeena and Pete deftly fool their audiences. As a matter of fact, Pete was once a fairly excellent master of “cold reading” thanks to a complex system of codes concocted by him and his wife, and, as a lad who has always been eager to get more, Stan is quite willing to listen and learn whatever Pete will generously impart to him.
And there is also Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), a sweet and charming young woman who has enjoyed a fair share of success via her electricity show. As she and Stan get to know each other bit by bit, they become more attracted to each other, and then Stan, who becomes more confident as learning more and more from Pete, promises her a bigger success for both of them. They come to dream more of leaving together someday, and Bruno (Ron Perlman), an aging strongman who has been a father figure for Molly for years, is not amused by that at all.
Although the adapted screenplay by del Toro and his co-writer Kim Morgan spends a bit too much time during its first half, del Toro does not miss any chance of filling the screen with heaps of baroque details to amuse or disturb us. Mainly thanks to its top-notch production design by Tamara Deverell and Shane Vieau, the first half of the movie effortlessly immerses us into a shabby and seedy world inhabited by Stan and several other main characters surrounding him, and there are plenty of grotesque elements including a menagerie of gruesome oddities in glass jars – and a pitifully desperate figure who has been at the bottom of the hierarchy inside the troupe.
During its second half, the movie switches onto a different kind of darkness with more slickness in terms of mood and style. Not long after they eventually left the troupe, Stan and Molly become a fairly successful duo for his own clairvoyant act, but Stan still wants more nonetheless, and then he finds himself seduced by an opportunity presented by a slick and confident female psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Although their first encounter is not exactly pleasant, Lilith later offers a supposedly lucrative partnership between them, and Stan grabs this chance without any hesitation despite the sincere concern from Molly and Zeena, who tactfully warns him of what may happen to him according to the fortunetelling from her tarot cards.
The climatic part mainly revolves around Stan’s attempt to deceive a certain rich and powerful man who promises him lots of money for getting what he has yearned for many years, but the movie somehow does not generate much suspense. Instead of getting accelerated with more heat and tension, it merely trudges toward its fatefully inevitable arriving point, and it also feels rather mild in case of handling the human passion and obsession inside the story, though the finale is accompanied with enough emotional gut-punch tinged with stark irony.
Anyway, the movie is still a splendid visual experience supported well by a bunch of talented performers. While Bradley Cooper, who has been steadily matured during last several years since his first Oscar-nominated turn in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), intensely holds the ground with another fine performance to be added to his advancing career, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who incidentally once appeared together in Todd Haynes’ great lesbian romance film “Carol” (2015), make an effective contrast to each other as the good girl and the bad lady in the story, and Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany, Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., and Tim Blake Nelson dutifully come and go while ably bringing considerable life and personality to their respective archetype supporting roles.
In conclusion, “Nightmare Alley” is one or two steps down from del Toro’s previous work “The Shape of Water” (2017), but it is still another distinctive and interesting work from del Toro, who has never let me down since his first feature film “Cronos” (1993). I am not wholly enthusiastic about the overall result, but I admire the film enough despite my reservation, and I am willing to revisit it someday just for appreciating its commendable technical aspects more.