With a career made up of countless, meticulously crafted monsters, it’s easy to overlook the many humans in Guillermo del Toro’s past work. Or maybe the delineation between the two isn’t that much different? The answer of how humans are often the true villainous creatures, the real monsters in del Toro’s fantastical worlds, couldn’t be more of an obvious one. Yet to see the filmmaker finally take a step away from all things supernatural and/or fantastical, all while still keeping some of his obsessions, is what he’s done now. Adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 carnival noir novel of the same title, Nightmare Alley sees the Oscar-winning writer-director step away from conjuring sympathetic monsters and romantic freaks. Which in and of itself is enough to indicate a major filmmaker taking an interesting deviation, but the most significant departure this lustrous noir makes from its director’s previous filmography is that here, human kind are the only possible monsters.
Nothing’s really subtle about that, yet it doesn’t stop it from being invigorating, especially as so much texture and color carries you along the way. But, in actuality, it all starts with del Toro casting one of Hollywood’s most handsome actors as a man who can’t bear to look at himself. As a charming drifter Stanton Carlisle, Bradley Cooper plays a blank slate of a stranger who says nothing for the film’s first ten minutes and speaks with an unassuming drawl when he finally does. Stanton presents himself as a humble nobody who’s happy to work a rough job if a hot meal comes his way, but the ominous, noir-subverting prologue in which he burns a house — with a corpse in it — to the ground, suggests he might have a few things haunting him. Not that carnival barker Clem Hoately (a nefarious Willem Dafoe) would give a damn about that; everyone in his extended family of misfits and outcasts wound up with the circus because they were falling from grace or fleeing its absence, and none are in the habit of asking questions.
Set between 1939 and 1941, del Toro and Kim Morgan’s script finds itself being more faithful to Edmund Goulding’s previous 1947 film adaption than it does to the novel that inspired it, and likewise kicks aside the caustic backstories of its various characters. Yet even with that, this is a movie bursting at the seams with actors who can imply richer histories than most people could ever hope to write; and one fully inhabited by cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s gliding, prowling camera, as a carnival springs to life here as a fully realized world. As a story that focuses less on the monsters around us than it does on the monsters inside, it’s the many carnies that provide an interesting sense of life; David Strathairn is an early standout as an alcoholic mentalist Pete Krumbein, a man who used to do shows in Paris and now drinks to forget that he’s passed out sitting under a flea-infested stage. There’s a lot of wisdom rocking around that sloshed head of his, and Stanton is suspiciously eager to receive it.
Pete’s wife and “psychic” stage partner Zeena (Toni Collette) tries not to dwell on the past, which is easier to do when Stanton knocks on her door and then strips down for a bath in her living room. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Stanton’s eyes fall on the young and innocent Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), who was born into this life and doesn’t seem to want for anything better. For all of these colorful characters, it’s arguable that no one makes a stronger impression on Stanton than the feral “geek” whom Clem drugs with opium and keeps locked in a cage until showtime, for when he rips a chicken’s head off and drinks from its neck for a scandalized crowd. Stanton has a gift for reading people, but he can’t figure out how a man could be reduced to such a sick attraction. Clem is happy to explain the process in giddy detail, but that doesn’t make it any easier for Stanton to understand. Some people will drink anything to get away from their fears, while others were born to prey on their hopes. Stanton is as certain of that as he is of his role in that equation, and Cooper is so good at playing men who believe their own BS that we naturally assume he’s right.
Of course, this slick-talking salesman is smarter than the gullible bunch who pay a quarter to watch Molly electrocute herself or listen to Zeena communicate with the spirit of their dead father. And there’s something particularly intriguing about watching a filmmaker so comfortable with supernatural phenomena set out to deconstruct it all. The magic in Nightmare Alley is little more than cheap trickery, though it becomes rather more lucrative once Stanton and Molly run off to the big city and launch their own mind-reading act for the entertainment of Buffalo elite, all while Stanton begins to loose his already lacking sense of self even more. Especially as a local psychologist peculiarly begins to get in on Stanton’s racket.
Such a psychologist is Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who quickly introduces all sorts of sharp angles to a movie that often loses some of its nuance. In a movie where carnival and high society turn out just to be different venues for the same vices and schemes, it can be pretty enjoyable to watch Blanchett spar with Cooper over their schemes during their characters’ private sessions — as the surrounding art deco production design from Tamara Deverell and constantly falling snow add a gothic menace to their interactions. What happens between the two comes off like an extension of Stanton’s theatrical mind tricks. This time, the live audience has vanished, and both Stanton and Lilith are clearly performing, each one trying to read the other. You can glean a lot just from the way del Toro directs both actors: the way Blanchett’s Lilith slinks around the scenery, like a cat that has laid claim to every surface, while Cooper’s Stanton remains wary and reined in, as if reluctant to get too comfortable. And you can’t help but savor the uneasy, asymmetrical partnership that emerges between them, right down to the uncanny way they sometimes seem to exchange roles. But even with Blanchett’s seductive performance, the back half of this story sands down her character’s darkest shades. Lilith may do a fine job of cutting Stanton down to size, but del Toro can’t help but make her seem larger than life in the process, and that grandiosity muddles her part in Stanton’s inevitable downfall.
As the movie comes to a close, it’s hard not to feel that del Toro understood Stanton’s trajectory better than the hunger that propelled him. After all, Stanton is the director’s polar opposite: One is sort of a softy, a true believer who doesn’t expect audiences to take his stories literally, and the other is a con man who needs his clients to buy into every word. So while del Toro may lose track of some of his narrative strands, one still can’t avoid the stinging power of Stanton’s gradual self-discovery. If del Toro’s previous film, The Shape of Water, was driven by a desire to get beneath the surface of the classic monster movie, Nightmare Alley remains content to cruise atop its genre of choice. (It’s a film noir in much the same way that Crimson Peak was a horror movie: Feverishly and often magnificently overwrought, it treats its genre less as a template to be followed than a lavish funhouse in which to run amok.) But no genre trappings could hold back the potency of the film’s perfectly sick punchline of a final scene, which features some of the best moments of Cooper’s career, and, most importantly, collapses this relatively larger-scoped film back down to a human-scaled story of one (monstrous) man’s undoing. A film of a cruel heart hiding underneath immaculately sumptuous and lurid visual textures, Nightmare Alley sees the emptiness of one man’s soul as something hellishly, if still elegantly, inevitable.
Nightmare Alley will be playing in Theaters nationwide on Dec. 17