Mexican master filmmaker Guillermo del Toro returns to screens with the gorgeous, lurid Nightmare Alley. The second adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel after Edmund Goulding’s 1947 big-screen version, del Toro’s latest ventures away from fantasy, revealing the monsters in this fable to be all too human.
Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.
Despite the lack of fantastical beasts, the filmmaking is pure del Toro, who has constructed another wonderfully baroque world to both delight in and recoil from. The carnival setting of the film’s first act is the perfect arena for a director like del Toro to play in. He has spoken about a trip to a Mexican carnival being an early formative experience for him and it’s easy to imagine Nightmare Alley’s carnival being as much an origin story for a young Guillermo as it is the springboard for a crime tragedy, marvelling at the sight of the spider woman.
The real monsters of Nightmare Alley, however, don’t come with eight legs. Chief among them is ambitious carny protagonist, Stan (Bradley Cooper). We are first introduced to Stan torching a decrepit old shack. Catching the next bus, he happens upon a carnival run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), who offers him paid grunt work. Stan works his way up, gains the trust of Pete (David Strathairn), a kindly old lush and retired mentalist – as well as the admiration of both Zeena (Toni Collette) and Molly (Rooney Mara) – before looting the old man’s book of secrets and making off with Molly to make a go of their own psychic act.
But, this being a tragedy and not a romance, we know things are destined to end badly for Stan. Lacking the preening vanity of his 1947 counterpart played by Tyrone Power, Cooper’s Stan is oily and cheap, performatively recoiling at carny boss Clem’s techniques for ensaring a performer for his geek sideshow, while he concocts his own schemes to enlarge his wallet and his ego. Stan’s tragic flaw is his inability to keep quiet, both as a performer and his predilection for recording his own incriminating evidence. This flaw is underlined by the irony that for the first ten minutes that he we him on screen, he doesn’t under a word.
Nightmare Alley’s second act swaps the lurid colours of the carnival for the noirish chiaroscuro of the nightclub. Film noir and horror share a visual and thematic lineage, so it’s immensely pleasurable to see the talents of a director whose work is defined by the aesthetics of gothicism brought to bear on his film noir. Del Toro’s fixation on the macabre, on human pathos and violence serves him well in both the worlds of the carnival and the art deco cityscape.
It’s here that we meet psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a knockout femme fatale with a Veronica Lake haircut and a loaded pistol with an ivory grip. Blanchett (along with Dafoe) steals every scene she’s in, which is just as well as it’s in this segment that Nightmare Alley loses narrative momentum, taking too long to get to the inevitable reveal that Stan has been Lilith’s patsy all along. It’s a shame, too, that after Lilith comes on the scene, Molly is all-but written out of the film and resigned to a bland good girl waiting passively off screen.
If Molly isn’t given enough character, Stan’s is perhaps too fleshed out. His backstory with his father, setting up Lilith’s later spider web, is too predetermined to have the intended emotional impact when her trap snaps shut, though there is great pleasure in watching Stan’s monumental hubris blind him to Lilith’s obvious coming betrayal, a pleasure exceeded only by horror as what awaits him is revealed. The 1947 film version added a coda to soften the blow of Stan’s fate; del Toro offers no such reprise, sticking to the novel’s dark ending. And with a rictus grin, Stan offers a sign-off that is just as devastating as that of Humphrey Bogart’s in The Maltese Falcon.