Don’t go to “Nightmare Alley,” a remake of the 1947 Tyrone Power film noir, now playing in theatres, for the warm fuzzies. Guillermo Del Toro’s new movie is as cold and icy as the season in which it is being released. Any movie that begins with the burning of a corpse and ends, well, you’ll have to buy a ticket to find out, isn’t exactly geared to make your season bright, but film fans should find this to be a gift.
Set in the days leading up to World War II, the story begins as drifter-with-a-dangerous-past Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) takes a job at a travelling carnival. Paid a dollar a day plus a hot meal, he does grunt work, putting up the big top tent and doing physical labor.
His gift of the gab soon earns him a promotion, working as a barker for the theatrical mystic Zeena (Toni Collette) and her magician husband Pete (David Strathairn). Stan is a quick study, and becomes an expert on how to bilk folks out of their hard-earned cash.
Longing for something bigger, he takes his own mentalism act on the road with the help of assistant and love interest Molly (Rooney Mara). It’s all fake, the two communicate through a series of veiled verbal clues, but audiences eat it up. They are making money performing at upscale nightclubs, but the offer of doing private readings for prominent people comes with a price tag Stan can’t resist.
Del Toro is known is creating intricate worlds populated by amazing people and creatures but don’t expect a replay of “Pan’s Labyrinth” or his Best Picture Oscar winner “The Shape of Water.” There are no supernatural elements in “Nightmare Alley.” The monster here is Stan’s cold hard ambition.
Cooper is in slickster mode here, playing Stan as a smooth-talking manipulator whose bad deeds stack up like some sort of ethically challenged Jenga game. He is an enigma. Willing to do whatever it takes to survive. He is a flawed but coldly ambitious man whose eyes are always trained toward the future. It is his biggest asset and, ultimately, his downfall.
Cooper does a good job at exposing Stan’s layers. He’s a complicated character, an amoral seducer with a seemingly charming disposition and Cooper only allows brief peaks at his desperation and brutality.
As good as Cooper is, it’s Cate Blanchett as the femme fatale psychiatrist Lilith Ritter who steals the show. From her overpainted red lips and seductive nature to her quick intelligence and vulnerability, she is the film’s most interesting and dangerous presence. Nice office too. It’s an Art Deco lover’s paradise.
Above all though, “Nightmare Alley” is Del Toro’s film. He doesn’t need one of his trademarked creatures like the Pale Man or The Asset to shock. Here he takes a methodical, detailed approach to the story, gradually building to some shocking violence and psychological horror. His interest here is the sinister, not the supernatural, and while the first hour gets bogged down with set-up and a major plot point is telegraphed (NO SPOILERS HERE!), his ability to create atmosphere is singular. Nobody casts a shroud of menace like Del Toro.
“Nightmare Alley” takes its time to set up its dark pleasures, but emerges as a memorable tribute to film noir whose images will stick in your mind long after the theatre’s lights are switched on.