Nightmare Alley opens with a singularly arresting image: a man dropping a dead body into a hole in his floor, and then throwing a match in after it. This man is Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), and, well, he seems to be making a new start. He walks away from the burning house, climbs on a bus, and rides into the end of the line – where, perhaps by chance, he finds himself at the gates of a traveling carnival. But nothing is mere chance, not in the world of film noir, and not in the world of Guillermo del Toro’s remake of one of the greatest of all noirs.
That film, directed by Edmund Goulding, was released in 1947 – a year after the William Lindsay Gresham novel that inspired it – so del Toro’s new take unsurprisingly gets a good deal grimier, especially in the opening sequence that can, in grisly detail, show us the carnival “geek show” that much of it centers on. That presentation, in which the barely-human geek bites the head off a chicken (“solely in the interest of science and education,” per Clem, the barker), is harnessed with real dread and disgust; you can’t say Stan doesn’t know exactly what he’s getting into.
He eventually nabs a steady job with the carnival, and then makes his way into the good graces of the fortune teller (Toni Collette) and her drunken husband/sorta assistant (David Strathairn). They teach him their mentalist act, a series of complicated verbal cues that allow him to front as though he’s reading minds – a skill that “can be misused,” he’s warned. But he quickly comes to understand a fundamental truth, known to all good grifters: at their center, people want to believe. He tries out these people-reading skills on a lawman intent on shutting the roadshow down, and that first flex is thrilling; we’re watching him find his way to what seems his destiny. “My whole life I been lookin’, lookin’ for somethin’ I’m good at,” he explains, excitedly, “an’ I think I found it.”
Cooper does some of his best work to date as Stan, going a long stretch up top without any dialogue at all, then only speaking when he must, before transforming himself to a man full of silky-smooth patter. Over the course of the picture, we watch him pull himself together and then fall back apart, and both journeys are compelling. Straithairn steps into his role like a pair of old boots, and Collette is a joy to watch, flaring her eyes and making enigmatic intonations like “Don’t do the spook show!” And Rooney Mara is aces as Molly, the “electric girl,” whom he falls for and sweeps away from the carny life; she gives the character real life and warmth (watch her trying and failing to stifle a smile after they throw the switch for that deputy).
There’s tentativeness and tenderness to their romance – real stakes, imagine that – and the two-year flash-forward, during which they perfect their act, shreds that intimacy immediately. (It’s a pretty bold bit of emotional tomfoolery.) While performing in a fancy nightclub, Stan crosses paths with a psychologist, Dr. Ritter (Cath Blanchett); “You’ve got a smoother line but you run a racket, same as me,” he assures her, and they make a nice little arrangement: he’ll hire himself out as a medium for her wealthy clients, and she’ll share the secrets they’ve told her in therapy. But she warns him, sternly, “If you displease the wrong people, the world closes in on you, very fast.” No prizes for guessing how that goes.
Blanchett makes a meal of her noir lighting and costumes, but it’s a fatally dull performance; she plays it exactly as you’d expect, her style fully cauterized, which is never praise for an actor this good. But as the wealthiest (and most dangerous) of their marks, Richard Jenkins is chilling, crafting a character quite unlike anything he’s done before.
The script, by del Toro and film historian Kim Morgan, follows the story beats of the original novel and film fairly closely, but luxuriates a bit more. Some have complained about the expansive running time (a half hour longer than the original), but this viewer isn’t one of them; a film with this much mood and atmosphere can take its time, and from a pacing perspective, del Toro only steps wrong at the very end, tapping the brakes when he should hit the gas (we know where it’s going to land, no need to belabor it).
No, he earns the indulgence, because he’s clearly having a great time blazing through his funhouse sets, and this carny world. The insights into how that world works are fascinating (and recall real, inside-baseball grindhouse films like She-Beast and Carnival of Blood, and of course Freaks); the filmmaker clearly enjoys just hanging out with these weirdos and eccentrics, so he takes his time with them, not hitting the mentalist section until the one-hour mark. There, he deftly replaces the grime of the carnival with the sleek, shiny Art Decco surfaces of the city, jettisoning the soft, inviting light of the midway for the hard shafts of the spotlights.
The production is impressive; Nathan Johnson’s score is deliciously baroque, costumes are impeccable, and Dan Laustesen’s cinematography is bursting with images of brutal beauty. It does wander a bit, to be sure (too much for impatient viewers, perhaps), but damned if del Toro doesn’t pull it all together in his humdinger of a climax, a tidal wave of blood, snow, strings, and vibes. That’s cinema, folks.
“Nightmare Alley” is in theaters Friday.