“Step right up and behold one of the unexplained mysteries of the universe! Is he a man or beast? This creature has been examined by the foremost scientists and pronounced, unequivocally, a man. I am prepared to offer you folks one last chance to witness this supreme oddity. Where did it come from? Begotten by the same and threat that got us all walking on this earth, but gone wrong somehow in maternal womb. Not fit for living. Is it a beast, or is it a man?”
Guillermo del Toro knows how to deliver atmosphere. His love for the horror films of the 1930’s shows in his use of shadows and lighting to build a world that’s always uniquely belonging to each of his films. He makes these worlds a thing unto themselves while leaving all the familiar markers that keep his worlds from appearing too alien. You want to take a ride in his worlds even if they are dark and foreboding. Mix in more than a little film noir with dark, saturated colors, and you pretty much already know what to expect from Nightmare Alley. The film is based both on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham and the 1947 film by Edmund Goulding and staring Tyrone Powell and Joan Blondell. The film leans heavier on the novel for source material and less on the original film. That’s because only del Toro is willing to go quite this dark, and it’s a good thing for us he is.
Stan Carlisle (Cooper) is a troubled man who has done something bad, and we catch him just at the tail end where he’s leaving behind him a blazing fire to cover up some nefarious deed. He stumbles into a traveling carnival and a freakshow where a feral man is shown to kill animals with his teeth to the shock of the audience. There he meets Clem Hoatley (Fafoe) who offers him day work to help strike the show and load for the next town. He’s quiet and barely speaks a word, trying to keep to himself. But he impresses the boss and is offered the chance to stay on when the show reaches its home base. He catches on to the troupe’s mentalist show with Zeena (Collette) and her aging and ill partner, Pete (Strathairn). He feels a little protective of the Geek, which is the Wildman, and it’s important to pay attention to that symbolism for you to truly appreciate the film’s payoff. Eventually he’s attracted to Molly (Mara), who plays an electric girl who appears to absorb large voltages of electricity. He helps her hone the show with an electric chair to make it more exciting for the rubes. They begin to have a relationship, and eventually they leave the troupe to set out on their own.
Years later Stan and Molly are doing their own mentalist act, but for high-class clubs instead of a roadshow carny operation. They are doing well but obviously getting a little tired of each other. Enter psychologist Lilith Ritter, played amazingly by Cate Blanchett. He’s attracted to her, and she eventually pulls him into her circle of friends where he starts to use her confidential information to scam rich folks with a spiritualist act. At first he hides it all from Molly, because she’s frightened about entering into that risky business. The events lead him to a huge whale, Ezra Grindle (Jenkins). He has lost his daughter and wants to contact her. He’s been swindled before, so he submits Stan to tests including a polygraph. Once Stan is in, he goes for the kill, pulling Molly in for the big score, when he learns a dark secret Grindle is carrying and it all goes horribly wrong.
It’s del Toro’s atmospheric world that tempts us in, but that’s not what holds us there. The film is too long. The movie is a continuous slow burn, and there are times when that works so very well. But not all of the time, and the moodiness can’t hold us when the film slows down too much. We get through those moments because the film’s performances are all so wonderfully compelling. Everyone here is terrific. This might not be Bradley Cooper’s best performance, but it is so heavily nuanced that this is certainly his most complex character. There are so many emotions and ideas going on at once, and he plays all of that confusion by making it look so natural. Stan is cool and collected even when he’s obviously not. He shares great chemistry with Rooney Mara as Molly, particularly at the beginning of their relationship. When things start to die, so does the chemistry, and that’s actually pretty sweet to see happen. That chemistry switches to the always great Cate Blanchett, and that relationship has so many sideroads you never really know exactly what’s going on, and that’s exactly the way it has to be, or it won’t pay off for you in the end. Ron Perlman is a del Toro lucky charm, and while his role is certainly small here, he makes himself known without ever getting in the way of the big picture. Six Feet Under’s Richard Jenkins is also a standout here as the aggrieved Grindle. I always loved him in the HBO show, and he’s not missing any beats in the years since.
The cinematography isn’t quite the standard kind of shots. I know some critics at my screening disliked the low-angle cuts, but I found them to be an intracule part of the atmosphere. There’s a shot where Cooper is burying something and the carnival is in the background with a dark night and stormy sky, and the Ferris wheel among the other sightlines of the carnival are perfectly placed in the background. Take out about 30 minutes of running time and this goes from a very good film to a great one. Too often great actors and filmmakers lose that hunger. It’s sad to see it happen, and it leads to box office and audience disappointment. But del Toro still yearns for that full meal each time out. If you like it when great filmmakers stay hungry, “You’re in luck, because tonight, you will see him feed!”