Like a fly in amber, or one of the doomed creatures in the formaldehyde jars in Clem’s (Willem Dafoe) cabinet of curiosities, the sepia tones of Nightmare Alley force us to examine, dispassionately, the destruction of a man.
Like the original 1947 film, we watch the spiritual and moral decay spread across the face of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man who at one point may have been a functional human being, with wants, needs, and a sense of decency (at least, enough of a sense to know when he’s crossed a line), to something horrifying and ravenous. As Clem asks the audience before displaying his carnival Geek, “Is he man or beast?”
Guillermo del Toro‘s remake of Nightmare Alley is delightfully evil. Every character is corrupted in some way, whether by greed, alcohol, their desires or their own ego. We enjoy seeing everyone twist in the wind, and we exit the theater so secure in our own righteousness and purity, not even considering that our piety is exactly the best place for the grifters to get their hooks into you, which recent events have proved.
“People want to show you who they really are,” says Carlisle, and it is no less true for the audience as it is for these characters.
The original 1947 film, based off the novel from William Lindsey Gresham, showcased Tyrone Power, who at the time was best known for his action-adventure films. It’s a remarkable performance, as Power slowly transforms himself from a confident, commanding presence to a shadow skulking between the lights of some backwoods carnival.
Bradley Cooper suffers by comparison, but he does very good work here, even if he doesn’t live up to Power’s work. Power’s Carlisle dominates the room; Cooper’s Carlisle quietly examines everyone in it, never speaking until he understands every facet of everyone he meets.
Full of ambitions but with little means to achieve them, Carlisle comes across a grift created by Pete (David Strathairn) and performed by Zeena (Toni Collette) that astonishes an audience eager to believe. Carlisle sees this as an opportunity to fame and fortune, so he manages to get the codebook revealing the secrets of the grift, and makes his way, carnival performer Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) beside him, to the big city.
His exploits put him into the orbit of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), psychologist to the rich and famous, and not above doing a little grifting of her own. Carlisle and Ritter circle like sharks around their prey, the prey being Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a wealthy man with secrets and an eagerness to be forgiven.
This cast is incredible, making the most of their screen time. In fact, they are all so good that Cooper suffers by comparison. This also feels intentional – Carlisle is, at first, an explorer of this world, while the rest of the carnies live in it every day. Carlisle is not without sin himself, but Cooper plays him as constantly on guard, even with those closest to him.
Willem Dafoe‘s Clem has a low opinion of humanity, seeing something to exploit in pretty much everyone. David Strathairn’s Pete is a broken man who still can summon some old school magic now and then, and Toni Collette’s Zeena loves and pities him, even if all the while she’s looking towards the door.
Rooney Mara gives Molly her own morality – she’s not above putting on a show for the marks but as Carlisle steps closer to the edge she begins to question this life she has chosen. Ezra Grindle is a powerful man, and Richard Jenkins fills him with an entitlement so deep that he thinks he can bend fate itself to his bidding, with enough money.
The best performance of the film is Cate Blanchett’s, hands down. It feels like she stepped right out of the era. She fills Lilith Ritter with a rage that she can barely control, and instead focuses it like a laser beam to those unfortunate enough to be in her way. Bradley Cooper’s best moments are with her, as Carlisle and Ritter verbally duel each other, exploring each other’s weaknesses and strengths, only revealing what they want the other to know. Blanchett’s work is sexy, fierce, and a bit terrifying, and you almost have to pity those who are dumb enough to cross her. Almost.
The original film has a momentum to it, but del Toro’s remake luxuriates in its wickedness like a warm bath. The payoffs do come but without any hurry, and less patient audiences may not appreciate the time del Toro takes with these characters. This is a slow burn of a movie. It could use about 15 minutes taken out, but I’d be hard pressed to know when and where.
However, Guillermo del Toro’s precision directing is marvelous to watch. The man knows what he’s doing and he is a master of craft. He’s orchestrating a symphony of evil and cackling at every crescendo. He’s patient with how this story plays out because he knows just how good a hand he’s holding. Plus, this cast is game for anything, even Cooper. Del Toro and this cast aren’t afraid to shock us at just the right moment.
This is another great Guillermo del Toro monster movie. It is just that these monsters do not have the grace or humanity of the others he has given us through the years. It’s unfortunate that Nightmare Alley is opening opposite the latest Marvel superhero ride – this is a movie that could have found an audience in time.
I’m certain, in the coming years, it will. I hope that you are able to take the time to catch this in a theater – this looks gorgeous on the big screen and is old fashioned in the best ways. Nightmare Alley is a beautiful dream of wickedness and malevolence, and I enjoyed my visit to these doorsteps leading down to Hell.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY REVIEW SCORE: 8 OUT OF 10
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years, for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He is a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.