The Pitch: When we first meet Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), he’s burying a body under the floorboards of a country home and setting it aflame, burning his past and his previous life to the ground, presumably to start anew. Eventually, his wanderings lead him to a run-down carnival deep in the sticks, where he quickly ingratiates himself with the freaks and geeks who populate it.
It’s not long before he sees the flim-flams underpinning each of their acts — particularly the mentalism of fortune teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her drunken husband, Pete (David Strathairn), who correctly divines the identity of objects with the help of verbal codes — and wants in on the action. Stars in his eyes, Stan makes his way to the big city with young, virginal carny Molly (Rooney Mara) in tow, taking the “spook show” to ritzy big-city clubs.
It’s there that Stan happens across Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), an unscrupulous analyst to the city’s upper crust who records her sessions and has an eye on Stan’s unique talents. Seeing a kind of kinship in their shared manipulation of people — he with clairvoyance, she with psychotherapy — the two strike a dangerous bargain, one that may just lead Stan to ruin.
I Have the (Tyrone) Power: While Guillermo del Toro is chiefly known for his glossy tales of the supernatural (from Pan’s Labyrinth to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water in 2017), Nightmare Alley’s monsters are decidedly human. (Granted, they often are in his other works, but here there are no fishmen or mystical fauns to run interference; it’s all man’s inhumanity to man.)
Even so, del Toro’s adaptation of the 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel — itself the product of a deviously delicious Fox noir starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell in 1947 — plays within a similar milieu. Both prior versions of the story are grim, acidic fables of the folly of the American mindset, where the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger story inevitably comes with a few broken hearts, bones, and lives.
In del Toro’s version, that same nihilism is there, albeit dressed up in the lush production design and hazy beauty of Dan Laustsen’s cinematography. It’s tempting to accuse del Toro of using his typically baroque approach to romanticize the story, not least because the film’s latter half is rife with Art Deco offices and slinky 1940s dresses. (The first act’s carnival comes to life with the kind of arch verve that reminds you of Tim Burton’s Big Fish.)
But his worlds have always found a grotesque beauty in their ugliness, and that holds true even when chicken-mutilating geeks are revealed to be desperate drunks held sway by spiked whiskey, or pickled monsters are just deformed fetuses that didn’t survive the womb. It may not have the sharp edges of a classic ’40s noir, but del Toro’s softer touch invites us in like one of Stan’s credulous marks.
Stan’s Labyrinth: That feeling of impending doom is aided by the cast, who work wonders with admittedly thin material. Del Toro’s characters are often more ciphers than people, and Nightmare Alley is no different: Mara and Collette, for instance, get a few scarce moments to shine but are often lost in the shuffle of the film’s rotating ensemble.
A few stand out, though: Willem Dafoe can play hucksters in his sleep, and his jaunty-eyed impresario Clem, who heads the carnival and introduces Stan to the world of geekdom, would be an all-star performance if we didn’t expect such excellence from him already. Strathairn’s Pete, with his slumped shoulders and soulful eyes, feels like the kind of run-down cretin Stan risks becoming, and he plays him with pathetic grace.
But Nightmare Alley is clearly Cooper and Blanchett’s show, especially in the latter half, and the pair get ample opportunity to elevate their material. Cooper’s Stan is a worrisome protagonist at first; he barely speaks for the first ten minutes, and when he does it’s with an unassuming Southern drawl. But just as Stan himself lures you in with an overt guilelessness, Cooper gradually peels back layer after layer, leaning into the opportunistic huckster that lies in the character’s cancerous heart.
Like Power before him, Cooper makes ample use of his matinee-good looks and black, sharklike eyes to both charm and entrance in equal measure. The more we see him, the more we realize there’s nothing to him except his next opportunity, Cooper transforming and reorienting himself at the drop of a hat to become whatever he needs to be in that moment. It’s compelling and chameleonic, though that same blankness often leaves the momentum of scenes to his supporting players.
As for Blanchett, she embodies Lilith with all the icy allure of your classic femme fatale, playing Stan like a fiddle even when he thinks they’re both on equal footing. While she lacks the androgynous appeal of Helen Walker’s turn in the 1947 version, Blanchett makes the most of her more glamorous take on the character, fitting a film’s worth of danger in just a few scenes (and a suspiciously heavy clutch). Still, she’s a victim of the film’s often-languid pace, which at a mighty 140 minutes still feels like it introduces her far too late for her to be as impactful on the story as she should be.