The director remakes a classic for his Awards Season entry
Nightmare Alley, Del Toro’s latest, began its life as one of the best sellers of the 1940s. The dark exploration of the secrets of carnival life and human nature by William Lindsay Gresham left an indelible mark on its author, who later committed suicide in the same hotel room where he completed the book’s first draft. In 1947 it was adapted into a feature by Edmund Goulding, in a film that while being a disappointment on its initial release, has since gone on to be considered a brooding noir classic. It only makes sense that such a study of the darker corners of man and fascination investigation of real freaks and geeks would attract the master of the dark fairytale, Guillermo del Toro.
If you’re unfamiliar with any of its previous incarnations, Nightmare Alley is the story of the silver tongued Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who after fleeing from the murder of his father, hides out working as a hand at a carnival. Through Stan we learn the carny hustle and how cold reading and social engineering is a way of life under the big top. Looking for another father figure, Stan soon falls under the tutelage of an older alcoholic mentalist who begins sharing with Stan an impressively sophisticated verbal/non-verbal code for crowd reads. Stan takes the tools he’s learned along with the shy sideshow beauty Molly (Rooney Mara) to start his own headlining act. It’s working as a mentalist in extravagant nightclubs, Stan’s talent for reading his mark is mistaken for a real connection to the great beyond.
Nightmare Alley is a lush period extravaganza immaculately recreated, that was no doubt funded thanks to the success of Shape of Water. But unlike that film, Alley is more of an ensemble piece led by Bradley Cooper, tackling the kind of darker material we haven’t seen the A-lister work with since Midnight Meat Train, and he’s honed his craft quite a bit since then. As usual with Del Toro it’s an embarrassment of riches as the neo-noirish nightmare comes to life on screen with a cast that all work to imbue the genre piece with a dark heart and soul. Cate Blanchett and Willem Dafoe are the clear standouts here that chew their scenery, as well as delivering skin crawling performances.
Like most noir films, the morality of most of the characters is ambiguous at best, but there is a code for those that are granted these tools. Stan is warned early on about the pitfalls of passing off his talent as the “real deal” and the dangers of giving those desperate for answers any kind of false hope. I had always been somewhat skeptical of these sorts of cons, but a few years ago at the Franklin Institute they had a mentalist do his show, on the premise of deconstructing the tricks. I was called on stage and it was an experience that showed me how truly vulnerable and predisposed we are to believe in something “bigger” that can cloud better judgment.
It’s a line that once Stan crosses, it sets into motion a series of events that allows the audience to witness the consequences play out in excruciating detail, which Del Toro utilizes to once again hit on his recurring theme that man is the most evil monster of all. This is coupled with a descent into madness that Cooper flawlessly sells as the grifter gets his comeuppance in a rather predictable, yet still shocking final act that delivers a surprisingly gory finale. While Alley doesn’t reach the dizzying height of Pan’s Labyrinth or Shape of Water, it’s still a very worthy entry into the director’s filmography and an fascinating exercise to see a remake given the director’s penchant for original material.