When I last saw a film directed by Guillermo del Toro, Sally Hawkins made love to a fish-man.
I mention The Shape of Water not just because I thoroughly enjoy acknowledging that a love story involving a fish-man won the Best Picture Oscar, but because it essentially informed my expectations heading into Nightmare Alley. Del Toro is a visceral storyteller who teases out the beauty and charm buried within what’s considered grotesque, otherworldly, or just plain strange. He relishes in challenging his audience, morphing our perceptions of the world before us so that we may embrace what’s unfamiliar (like, once again, a fish-man).
It’s almost too on-the-nose that Del Toro’s next feature film would center on a mentalist, another master of manipulating the visual sense. Nightmare Alley follows the rise and fall of Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a poor carnival worker whose deft ability to identify pockets of opportunity amongst the vulnerable helps him climb out of destitute carny life into higher society. His ascent is challenged by a chance encounter with psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) during one of his shows. Combining her analysis records and his psychic schtick, Stan and Lilith team up to scam Chicago’s elite by preying on their tragedies. It’s a slick operation, but personal ambition, complicated pasts, and murky motivations hang oblivion directly above its head.
Like its mind-bending protagonist, Nightmare Alley has sky-high aspirations for the psychological thriller genre in which it sits. Del Toro seeks elevation, pushing every element to the edge of its limits and perhaps even further than that. The neo-noir aesthetic gives him plenty of runway as he crafts a WWII-era world that is grimey and cold and yet handsomely appealing. The set designs – ranging from threadbare and gritty tents to glamorous art deco-style mansions – are stunning, but how Del Toro captures them takes them even higher. His compositions are wildly compelling, whether they seduce (Stan staring intently, with a glint in his eye, at Lilith) or unsettle (basically everything that happens at the carnival). Try as you might (and trust me, you’ll want to at specific points); you can’t quite muster the conviction to look away.
Del Toro’s enchanting imagery compensates for Nightmare Alley’s narrative, which is distractingly varied. The film feels like two different stories in one, with their own tones and logic governing them. Stan’s time at the carnival is shaped like a loosely-wounded spool of horror, slowly unraveling to reveal the dark breadth and depth of that lifestyle. As striking as the scenes often are, the film’s leisurely pace makes it difficult to appreciate this obvious prologue to the main event. Once Stan achieves his final form – slicked-back hair and dinner-appropriate tuxedo – the energy shifts to a higher gear. The film barrels through Stan and Lilith’s insidious plot and romantic dalliance with disarming urgency while leaning on its characters’ muddled psychologies, effectively abandoning the horror elements altogether.
Nightmare Alley’s middle is its most narratively interesting part, and it made me wonder whether the beginning should’ve been shorter, if not excised completely (the sooner we get to Cate Blanchett, the better). However, Del Toro’s vision for that extended prologue crystallizes in the film’s final stretch with a full-circle moment that is shocking, inevitable, and incredibly satisfying. It even justifies the uneven tone and pacing and reaffirms how entertaining the film can be.
Nightmare Alley marks the welcome return of Bradley Cooper after his Oscar-nominated (and Oscar-deserving) lead role in A Star is Born. Noir looks excellent on Cooper, and he readily embraces the mysterious, unknowable atmosphere of the genre and his character. Stan, especially in the beginning, is stoic, almost wooden, but Cooper finds little ways to show that the character’s wheels are always turning, seeking scenarios and people that will advance his position. It’s a controlled but intriguing performance. Cate Blanchett is mesmerizing as his accomplice and nemesis, conveying a calculated vulnerability that sizzles with impending doom. Cooper and Blanchett are an enticing pair, finding genuine chemistry in their characters’ mutual deficiencies. (The fact that there isn’t a love scene to capitalize on it feels so wrong.).
Toni Collette could’ve stepped into Blanchett’s role if she were inclined, but she’s just as impressive as the faux-psychic Zeena, whose eyes shimmer with mischief, sorrow, and disappointment. Willem Dafoe is the right amount of ruthless, unscrupulous, and pitiful to make carnival ringleader Clem both menacing and absurd. Rooney Mara’s Molly tends to get lost in the shuffle of the carnival and Stan’s increasingly preposterous act, but she shines in moments of quiet sadness and disappointment.
A few faults aside, Nightmare Alley is another feather in Guillermo del Toro’s cap as one of the most captivating directors working today. His ambitions can make him lose grip at times, but he’s fashioned an intriguing, stylish, and thoughtful spectacle that once again offers humanity to beings that society has shunned. There are no fish-men to hold your gaze (the last reference, I swear), but the cyclical oddities of the carnival world and its seedy underbelly make for a more-than-adequate replacement.