Fresh off disposing of a mysterious body in mysterious fashion, drifter Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) wanders into the camp of a traveling carnival during the opening moments of director Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley.”
The first act he happens upon is the Geek show, where a half-naked, feral man is uncaged and chases a live chicken around a ring, finishing when he catches the chicken and bites off its head. “Is he man or beast?” bellows barker Clem Hoately (Willem Defoe), and the sad answer is apparently both.
Del Toro strays from the supernatural in his glossy, gothic remake of the 1947 noir classic, both based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name. But that does not mean del Toro is done exploring the hazy line between men and monsters.
The hunky Stan takes a job as a carny and is promptly seduced by mentalist Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette), part of a two-person clairvoyant act with her father, Pete (David Strathaim). Stan joins their team after he flashes a knack for reading people and learns the complex code Pete and Zeena use to execute their act. Stan also shows a proclivity for pushing the moral bounds of the act, especially when it comes to supposed mediumship and the emotional sway it holds on patrons. Pete, an alcoholic haunted by his past missteps, warns Stan to avoid the trappings of the “spook show” and not carry the illusion too far.
Meanwhile, Pete has eyes for fellow performer Molly (Rooney Mara), whose carnival act basically involves letting electric currents run through her. When Pete passes away after Stan accidentally gives him wood alcohol instead of moonshine, Stan convinces Molly to run off and start their own mentalist act. Branding himself “The Great Stanton,” Stan works a nightclub act for Chicago elites, wowing them with his talents. After Stan one-ups skeptical psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), the two meet and hatch both an affair and a nefarious plan for Lilith to steer Stan to one of her wealth clients — armed with sensitive private information she learned during therapy sessions — and use that insight to fleece him. Matters spiral out of control when Stan is recommended to Ezra Ritter (Richard Jenkins), another of Lilith’s patients, who has money, a mean streak, and is seeking seance with his departed illegitimate lover, Dory, who died of a force miscarriage.
Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen paint a luminous, exquisite canvas, full of rich dark interiors and carefully crafted set designs, making an elegantly foreboding aesthetic for this chilly neo-noir. Amid that surface lies a story without heroes. Everyone is hiding their own demons and/or inner immorality, whether it is the self-absorbed Stan, the treacherous Lilith, or the heinous Ezra. Even the gregarious Clem, who befriends Stan early, gleefully operates a spectacle that subsists on luring in drifters, plying them full of booze and barbiturates, and then convincing the wretched tweakers to take a “temporary” job as a geek.
Where del Toro falls short is establishing much, if any foundational character motivation, including the origins of Stan’s daddy issues, Lilith’s duplicity, and Molly’s codependency. That leaves the awfulness to exist in somewhat of a moral vacuum, which keeps “Nightmare Alley” from achieving cinematic greatness but not from being a pulpy film noir, where such motives and rationales are often as purposefully murky as the milieu. It is all very nihilistic, a feature-length waking nightmare, and a tremendous motion picture. In other words, exactly what you’d expect from Guillermo del Toro.
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