There’s a con at play, this beguiling sense that everything isn’t exactly what it seems. It dances with the allure of the carnival, but never shies away from the ruse. You’re constantly left with the sense that you’re on the same step as the characters — or maybe even a few steps ahead of them — especially when there’s the dangling tease of the supernatural.
Certainly, when you have a director like Guillermo del Toro at the helm, you expect mysticism, to wander into an odyssey of worlds once unknown. Throughout his career, the Pan’s Labyrinth filmmaker has entranced and ensnared audiences by letting them know and/or sympathize with characters fantastical and otherworldly. A man born in hell is given the same depth of pathos as a mute woman who discovers an erotic fixation with a fish-eyed creature. In the luminous eyes of del Toro, there’s always a callithumpian joy to be found in dangers that continue to lurk in the netherworld, and what oddities can be hidden in plain sight.
In that respect, what becomes so impressive about Nightmare Alley is its nature of the deceit, the trick of the trade. You’re left waiting for the reveal, for the other shoe to drop. Without giving too much away, however, the dodge here is that del Toro is, rather intriguingly, playing it straight. That this thunderous passion project to his Best Picture-winning triumph is centered around the very nature of magic itself, yet the story is surprisingly and maybe ironically his most straight-laced feature in some time. Maybe ever.
Blurring the lines between pulpy thrills and prestige theatricality, del Toro’s grave and grandiose adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s haunting 1946 novel, which was adapted to the screen to acclaim in 1947, proves to be an interesting reflection of the devilishly dexterous director’s showman soul. To know the game, you have to know the con, but Nightmare Alley isn’t about being deceitful. Rather, it’s unexpectedly haunting about the grim truths of the trade. You can spend so long trying to hustle that you forget that the person you’re really swindling is yourself. If you spend too much time fantasizing about the dark allure of this magical profession, you find that you’re not the mighty maestro; you’re the geek. The distinction isn’t as deep as it once seemed, but it can prove devastating if you’re not paying attention to the sleight of hand.
This time around, the ringmaster is Bradley Cooper as Stan Carlisle, a dark, down-on-his-luck lowlife who wordlessly stumbles his way into the world of the carnivalesque when he needs to find a new place to call home. Endearing himself to the likes of Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), the leader of the traveling band of misfits, and, eventually, clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her distressed, drunken mentalist husband, Pete (David Strathairn), Stan finally finds a trade that can suit his hustling-and-bustling ways.
Stan later convinces Molly (Rooney Mara), a sweet-eyed ingenue, to join him in his new venture: a solo act where he leans into the lessons he learned from a begrudged Pete. But as they make a name for themselves, Stan’s ego only continues to inflate, and he believes he can score quite a big game from a mysterious, alluring psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett), who may prove to be either his most formidable friend or his most dangerous adversary.
As a bulkier, if not always brawnier, version of the 1947 black-and-white noir, del Toro’s Nightmare Alley lacks the guileful simplicity of its predecessor. The story beats are often similar, and there’s less uncertainty when it comes to the complexity of the interior motives of these on-screen hucksters. Of course, as a remake, del Toro is wily enough to know that his retelling shouldn’t be about the rationale of the personalities, but rather a character-focused cinematic dissertation-of-sorts that examines the very nature of what it means to be in the business of fooling others. To be so caught up in the temptation of the tricks, you can get caught in your own warped spell. It respects the dourness of the text while also leaving ample room to explore the twisted pleasures that come from being close to such a wacky, often wondrous profession.
Expectedly, Nightmare Alley is often at its most confident when it focuses on the hell-raising appeal of being in a magic show and up-and-close with these odd entertainers. When the director focuses more on diving into the noir elements of the narrative, before revealing the depth of Stan’s deception, he seems less sure-footed but no less enthused. Adapting the screenplay alongside his wife, Kim Morgan, del Toro is so caught up in the romanticism of being spellbound by magic that he can’t recognize how overdrawn and overlong the first half of the movie ultimately proves to be.
No matter. Even if the man recognized it, he probably didn’t or wouldn’t care. Part of the joy of this movie is seeing del Toro fully lean into his indulgences, while also learning to restrain himself in some key measures. While the first half allows the moviemaker to play up his characteristic intrigue regarding the mystical and macabre, the second half shows him pushing down a number of his impulses, allowing the movie to mirror the cold resolve of this aloof protagonist who thinks he’s at the top of his game.
It’s maybe not the most practical way to tell this story, but it’s hard to argue with the devastating weight of the final 10 minutes, which is made as powerful as it is thanks to Bradley Cooper’s mesmerizing character work. Though it’s hard to compete with the thorny theatricality of Tyrone Power’s charming turn in the original, Cooper’s transformative lead performance showcases the actor’s now-trademark signature of playing overzealous, even arrogant goal-driven busybodies who can’t help but get tangled in their own cobwebs.
While this performance won’t be deemed his best by many if any, it’s a proper fit for the exceptional actor, a standout star who only continues to impress with his bullish bravado that’s made gentler with the warm and eager enthusiasm burning in his ever-present eyes. It’s easy to believe that he’s a trickster, and yet, it’s easier to believe that he can be duped by his own foolishness. That’s something that’s hard to channel well, but Cooper makes it seem natural here, and his performance is what helps this uneven film find its balance.
Of course, with a cast as outstanding as this one, nobody proves to be a weak link. Mara is compassionately delicate and Blanchett is dependable as an elusive firecracker. Dafoe is expectedly strong as a penny-pinching moneyman and Ron Perlman is an inspired choice to play a domineering strongman. Likewise, the sets are predictably wonderful, the period detail is dazzling, and the camerawork remains crisp and luminous.
Despite overstaying its welcome with its burdensome runtime, Nightmare Alley can feel oddly slight for such a long-winded film. And yet, as the layers of its con reveal itself, del Toro provides another outstanding demonstration of his talents in revealing the layers of the known and unknown. To look at it at face value, Nightmare Alley is a tale of a man who cannot get out of his own way. For him, it’s a chance to warn people of the dangers of believing your own ruse, especially when you’re spellbound by your own mystique. In the end, the geek is the one who doesn’t know it’s all smoke and mirrors until it’s too late. Be charmed by the lie, but don’t be fooled. Magic isn’t meant to last.
Nightmare Alley opens theaters starting December 17. Watch the trailer here.