Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of “Nightmare Alley” is a contemporary film noir teeming with howling winds, pelting rain and swirling snow.
The movie, set in the years leading up — and including — the early months of World War II, chronicles the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a charismatic drifter who joins a carnival, learns some tricks from a has-been mentalist, later uses those deceptions to enrich himself and, finally, plummets to his true and deserving destiny.
“Nightmare Alley” is a remake of a 1947 movie starring Tyrone Power, who had begged 20th Century Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck to buy the rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s novel so he could star in the movie version. (Power, after serving in World War II, wanted to change his matinee idol image and take on more challenging projects.)
Del Toro and Kim Morgan’s screenplay creates a dark, dank and oppressive atmosphere, from the opening when Cooper’s Carlisle walks away after burning down his isolated home, to its foreshadowed finale.
The movie is about illusion and influencing people to believe what they want to believe.
A hungry and broke Carlisle gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere and wanders into a carnival. You see the attraction to the milieu in his eyes, his brain calculating the possibilities. He also is fascinated and disturbed by the geek, a down-on-his-luck individual who lives in a cage and bites off the heads of chickens to entertain audiences.
He is offered a meal and a job as a laborer by Clem (Willem Dafoe), the carnival owner. He soon ingratiates himself into the lives of Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn). Zeena has a clairvoyant act, in which she and Pete use a coded language to make it appear that she has special mental abilities.
Pete befriends Stan and begins teaching him the act. Pete also warns Stan never to use the skills to lead patrons on when it comes to the dead. Pete calls it a “spook show,” saying it only causes tragedy.
Stan, despite fooling around with Zeena, is attracted to Molly (Rooney Mara), a fellow performer. He tells Molly he loves her and asks her to leave the carnival with him. After a fatal accident, he is given Pete’s code book and tells Molly his idea for a new two-person act.
Two years later, the pair are in Chicago, where Stan has reinvented himself as “The Great Stanton,” a mentalist. Molly is his assistant. Their act attracts the wealthy and most powerful people in the city.
Stan’s abilities, ambition and greed lead him down a path that he was warned against taking.
He also discovers an accomplice for his new venture, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist, whose patients include some of the city’s most influential people.
Arrogance is Stan’s downfall. He believes that he is smarter than anyone else because of his ability to read people. It never occurred to him that someone could turn the tables on him.
Cooper’s performance is very interesting. He emits an innocent, aw-shucks persona, but, in his body language and eyes, you can see he’s always scheming, looking for the most suitable angle to win an advantage.
When his Stan talks, it’s as if every word is calculated and has been rehearsed. He treats nearly everyone — including Molly — as a mark.
Carlisle, though, meets his match in Ritter. Blanchett portrays her as a silky operator, who sneakily manipulates people, quietly probing and discovering their weaknesses.
Blanchett matches Cooper in scene for scene. Her Ritter is much smarter than Stan, but to keep her advantage, allows him to believe he is in control.
Mara is the movie’s moral core, continuing — and failing — to curb Stan’s avarice machinations, and pleading with him to be content with what they have.
You need not have read the novel or seen the original movie to know how far Stan falls. It is obvious; foreshadowed early in the movie.
Still, it’s Stan’s crooked journey to self-realization that drives “Nightmare Alley.” It’s a disturbing ride, but one that you won’t want to miss.
I am a founding member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I review movies, 4K UHD, Blu-rays and DVDs for ReelBob (ReelBob.com), The Film Yap substack and other print and online publications. I can be reached by email at email@example.com. You also can follow me on Twitter @ReelBobBloom and on Facebook at ReelBob.com or the Indiana Film Journalists Association. My movie reviews also can be found at Rotten Tomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.
3 stars out of 4
(R), sexual content, nudity, bloody violence, language