Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro’s take on “Nightmare Alley,” a noirish carny novel first adapted for a Tyrone Power film in 1947, is a pitiless vision of an underworld of grifters and tent-show hustlers.
Stunningly-detailed, with an A-list cast up and down the line, it’s a gorgeous and gloomy dip into the dark side, immersive and bleak from start to finish.
It’s an impressive star vehicle for Bradley Cooper, who dabbles on the amoral end of the leading man spectrum as a soulless con artist whose motives are never as clear as his methods. Surrounding him with the likes of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette and del Toro darlings Richard Jenkins and Ron Perlman just adds luster to a film that practically glimmers with “prestige.”
We meet our anti-hero in a remote prairie farmhouse, piling stuff into a hole in the floor and torching the place, as if he’s an old hand at covering his tracks. His wordless odyssey into oblivion takes him to a strange city, where he follows a dwarf from the bus station to the midway and tents set up on the edge of town.
Skulking about wins him the attention of Clem (Dafoe), who runs the outfit and MCs the “freak” (geek) show. That’s how “Stan,” as we discover he’s called, gets taken in by his fellow outsiders.
He isn’t sure it’s compassion on anybody’s part that’s led to his employment. But before long he’s thrown in with the mentalist Zeena (Collette) and her aged, alcoholic ex magician lover, “Professor” Pete (Strathairn).
Stan watches and listens, and offers suggestions to Molly (Mara) for her “Electra” electrical-shock act. And he studies at the feet of Pete, learning to “read people” and “work the crowd,” running Zeena’s elaborate mind-reading hustle.
“People are desperate to tell you who they are, desperate to be ‘seen,” he learns.
That’s the game he excels at, and that’s where he’ll make his mark, luring Molly away with him in pursuit of riches and fame by telling people things they want to hear, reciting tips passed on by his “assistant” (Molly) that reveal someone’s secrets, the dead relative they want to speak to on “the other side,” amazing and enriching himself as they do.
But as they work their way into upscale clubs with a white tie and tails act, they get the attention of an unscrupulous Buffalo psychotherapist (Blanchett). That’s where Stan smells big money, tapping her clients’ list, revealing their secrets and turning that into influence, big paydays and danger.
As Stan ponders the depths he’s sinking to, he muses that “Sometimes you don’t see the line until you’ve crossed it.”
Director and co-writer del Toro brings his “Pan’s Labyrinth/Shape of Water” and “Devil’s Backbone” eye for period detail and a big check along to build the sets, costumes and snowy streets of 1939-41 America for this film.
The Great Depression hasn’t ended, and dirty, broke Stan has little trouble blending in with the other “men of the road,” hobos and drifters of the day.
The carny milieu is convincingly rendered, as is its “family” of dog-faced boy, bearded lady, “geeks,” dwarves and a strong man (Perlman, of course) barely one step ahead of the law, thanks to the merciless exploitation of animals and people and the sexually prurient “kootch show” among the assorted tents aimed at separating “marks” from their money.
The director goes to great pains to show the code and info-passing tricks of this “mentalist” shtick, and Cooper’s Stan lets us know, the moment he’s warned against taking his “talents” seriously, that this is what he will almost certainly do. He’ll put on “a spook show,” pretending and even thinking it’s as “real” as the gullible rubes he’s conning.
Cooper makes Stan an inscrutable figure, letting us see what he sees but rarely letting on what he’s thinking. Stan’s a man of grime and corruption, guilt and ambition, and Cooper ensures he’s unknowable. He looks good in a battered fedora, never lets us or whoever he’s dealing with see his hand and leans on the cigarette as prop entirely too much for someone who’s not the most convincing smoker.
Collette and Blanchett make the deepest impressions among the supporting cast, women who know what they want and flatter Mr. “easy on the eyes” to try and get it.
Mara has the tricky job of playing the jaded innocent, and pulls it off.
The film’s spell is broken, somewhat, as it lurches towards its grim, foreshadowed end. Characters curse in a modern modern vernacular and story elements don’t so much unravel as abruptly blow-up in violence.
But del Toro has followed his Oscar-winning sci-fi with one of the best films of 2021. He’s created a lurid film noir that dazzles in its ambition and startles in its seductive ability to draw you in and make you invest in a story littered with a succession of unsavory characters, none more so than our amoral, “easy on the eyes” leading man, our tour guide into “Nightmare Alley.”
Rating: R, Some Sexual Content|Nudity|Language|Strong/Bloody Violence
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Mary Steenburgen, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Jenkins, Toni Collette, David Straithairn and Ron Perlman.
Credits: Directed by Guillermo del Toro, scripted by Guillermo del Toro and Kin Morgan, based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham. A Searchlight release.
Running time: 2:30