- Courtesy Of Kerry Hayes/20th Century Studios
- CARNIVAL KNOWLEDGE Mara and Cooper play carnies turned con artists in del Toro's flawed new adaptation of the midcentury noir novel.
Talk about holiday counterprogramming! Currently in theaters, the new film from Guillermo del Toro (Oscar winner for The Shape of Water) is a star-studded slice of dark, gritty noir.
Del Toro has said Nightmare Alley is based on William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel about carny life, rather than on its classic 1947 film adaptation starring Tyrone Power. Though plenty of snow flies in the film, it's likely to bring holiday cheer only to viewers like me who are fascinated by the lore and tactics of carnival folk.
It's 1939, and Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) has just set fire to a house with a corpse inside. He hops a bus across the country and lands in a seedy carnival, where he makes himself at home doing dirty jobs for the owner (Willem Dafoe).
Faux clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband (David Strathairn) school Stan in the art of mentalism, or convincing gullible people that he can read their minds. A quick learner, Stan soon has ambitions bigger than the carnival. With the help of fellow carny Molly (Rooney Mara), he starts performing at swanky clubs, billing himself as a conduit to the supernatural realm.
At one of those clubs, Stan meets a cold-blooded psychiatrist, Lilith (Cate Blanchett), who is unburdened by professional scruples about confidentiality. With her help, his ambitions balloon again — but the bubble is overdue to burst.
Will you like it?
Is there any reason to readapt Nightmare Alley in 2021? The story belongs to another time, when fortune-tellers performed for clubbing socialites, psychotherapy was mildly disreputable, and people known as "geeks" ate live chickens rather than fixed your computer.
And yet, consider the recent resurgence of the terms "grifter" and "hustler," both of which Stan proudly applies to himself. Social media teem with people peddling illusions and bragging about their successful hustles. Perhaps, these days, the carnival is the world.
Viewed as part of an ongoing history of shameless con artistry, Gresham's character study suddenly seems more relevant. One might even wonder whether del Toro had contemporary public figures in mind as comparison points for Stan.
The film's downfall is that it never lets us get close enough to its quasi-sociopathic protagonist to experience the momentary, ambivalent pleasure of rooting for him. Cooper's performance keeps us at a distance, guessing what's behind Stan's eyes.
For the first 10 or so minutes of the movie, Stan has no dialogue, rendering him something of a cipher: Is this handsome fellow a little dim or just not a talker? Accordingly, we transfer our interest to the more personable supporting players. Dafoe is deliciously slimy, while Collette and Strathairn show humanity and humor as mentalists who practice within ethical bounds.
Stan is a different breed. By the time he meets Lilith, we know what he wants from life — "dough," he says — but we still don't know what really drives him. Lilith herself seems intent on finding out; she strikes a deal that puts the reluctant Stan on her office couch. Cooper and Blanchett have a creepy chemistry, and Stan's unorthodox therapy session is the movie's most gripping scene.
Throughout, Nightmare Alley is a feast for the eyes, with top-notch costuming and production design supporting del Toro's already sumptuous visuals. The lurid crimsons and greens of the carnival's sideshow have the viscerality of an oil painting. The aforementioned therapy scene makes use of falling snow and wafting cigarette smoke to create a poignant sense of unreality. Every outfit Lilith wears is a triumph and a provocation.
Yet somehow the film's elements never click into place. Each scene is compelling on its own, but there's no central thread strong enough to tug us toward the conclusion, which savvy noir fans will be anticipating from the outset. Instead of feeling pity and terror for Stan, we may just hope he gets his inevitable karmic payback without hurting too many other people on the way.
Perhaps the moral of Nightmare Alley is something that Dafoe's cynical barker says early on, explaining why carnivals need freaks and geeks: "Folks pay good money to make 'emselves feel better." The purpose of sideshows, in other words, is to make patrons feel more secure in their own so-called "normality" — an indictment of voyeurism that rings true today. Yet, because it lacks a center, del Toro's film never succeeds in making us turn the prying gaze of the carnival goer back on ourselves.
If you like this, try...
Freaks (1932; rentable): One of the original cult movies, with a scene that still generates memes today ("One of us! One of us!"), Tod Browning's carnival-set drama is more sympathetic to the so-called "freaks" than to their "normal" counterparts.
"American Horror Story: Freak Show" (2014; Apple TV, Hulu, Netflix, fuboTV, rentable): Like most seasons of the horror anthology series, this one is a guilty pleasure at best. But for fans of carny camp, watching a German-accented Jessica Lange lead a troupe of midcentury misfits is a must.
The Grifters (1990; HBO Max, rentable): Perhaps it's time to revisit Stephen Frears' bone-cold modern noir, nominated for four Oscars, in which Anjelica Huston and John Cusack play estranged mother-and-son con artists.