There’s always a slight sense of trepidation whenever a director chiefly linked with genre work gets a sniff of respectability and moves away from the kinds of movies that made them popular in the first place. However, cinematic abandonment issues caused by Peter Jackson aside, I expected that feeling to hit me the exact moment I found out that Guillermo Del Torro had won the Oscar for The Shape Of Water – but it didn’t. I chalked it up at the time being down to the fact that he’d won Hollywood’s most prestigious award for a movie where Sally Hawkins bones a fish-dude (not exactly Forrest Gump, eh?), but was fully expecting the feeling to strike me again when it was announced the Del Toro’s next work would contain absolutely no fish-men, no bizarre clockwork creatures and not even a single trace of mature fairy tales to be found anywhere… and yet, the feeling still didn’t hit me. So what’s so different about Del Toro crafting a movie based on the 1946 thriller of the same name that had been turned into a movie once before in 1947? The answer? Turns out it’s not the monsters that make a Del Toro movie after all.
It’s 1939, and shifty loner Stan Carlise joins a travelling carnival after we see him dispose of a body by setting fire to a house. He soon gets swept up in the life after helping carnival owner Clem restrain their resident geek (a homeless person reduced to a bestial state due to drugs and mistreatment) and finds himself working with clairvoyant act Madame Zeena and her burnt out, boozy husband Pete. Stan is told by Pete about a complicated cold reading act that he used to do back in his glory days and the mystery man shows a desire to learn the coded messaging system that comes with it but it comes with a warning: treat the act and the marks with respect and don’t take things too far when claiming to be able to communicate with dead relatives as things are libel to get out of hand.
As he learns the ins and outs of the act, Stan starts getting close to fellow Carny performer Molly and woos her into joining him with his act and leaving the carnival for good. This doesn’t sit too well with hulking strongman Bruno who has declared himself Molly’s guardian after her father died, but Stan’s gift for showmanship and reading people soon means he gets his way and he and Molly start conning the wealthy elite of New York with his polished act of “The Great Stanton” which is merely a version of Pete and Zeena’s old act but with higher stakes.
Starting to believe his own hype, Stan starts a tempestuous relationship with icy psychiatrist Dr. Lillith Ritter clues him onto doing private shows for wealthy clients using the information Ritter has on them to gain knowledge of their dodgy pasts. The most troubling one of these is the obscenely rich Ezra Grindle, an unstable man who is desperate to commune with his lover who died during a forced abortion. Can Stan’s skills hold out or will this world of lies he’s constructed for himself come crashing down, taking everybody with it?
So as I stated before, this is the first movie from beloved fantasist Guillermo Del Torro and throughout its (admittedly overlong) running time there’s not a single mythical fawn, rock handed superhero demon or giant robot suit to be found, but fans of the maestro can relax as Nightmare Alley still feels very much like his work. Easily as visually sumptuous as The Shape Of Water or Crimson Peak, the heart of the movie is set in the meticulously designed carnival scenes with the magnificent fun house and Clem’s living quarters being the stunning centerpieces – in fact, the repeated appearance of a pickled, three-eyed baby named Enoch may ironically be the most Del Toro creation we’ve seen and no doubt the contents of the eerie green jar has taken pride of placement in its creator’s private collection.
As for the film itself, it’s beautifully shot and immaculately cast, even if not quite everything in the film works as well as it could, but its mainly an engaging tale as we witness a man losing what little of himself he has in this persona of a con man made good. Bradley Cooper is memorable as Stan, cipher of a man who takes his talent of reading people way too far and Cate Blanchett uses those blood red lips to perfection as the predatory psychiatrist who made just be playing the player all along. Toni Collette, Willem Defoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, David Strathairn and Del Toro regular Ron Pearlman all also give pitch perfect performances that go huge lengths to making this world that’s worryingly light on morals weirdly seductive and even though not a lot actually happens during our walk through Nightmare Alley, when it does it’s shocking and brutal.
If there’s a problem with the film it’s that as well as it’s very slow burn, the fact that some of the characters motives are left up to the viewers imaginations sometimes feel like either lapses of logic or that some of the characters are simply written as too mysterious for us to follow them closely. Also, the moment the film leaves the rickety confines of the carnival and heads to the shiny marble floors and high ceilings of New York, the movie loses a fair bit of its character – but then, that might be because Del Toro is doing his job too well and our feelings are simply mirroring Rooney Mara’s Molly. Still, Del Toro knows when to bring on the creeps and thanks to scenes like Defoe’s Clem casually describing how to basically enslave and debase a human being to madness in order to create a new geek, the dread builds nicely.
While a couple of things simply don’t ring true, the fact that Del Toro has finally had a chance to go all out to show exactly how deep his adoration of cinema goes is infectious and goes even further into love letter territory than Shape Of Water did as rain snoaks and snow billows all around some of the best sets you’ll see this year.
As a measured descent into the darkness of the human spirit, Nightmare Alley is maybe a bit too measured for it’s own good, but its cast and its gorgeous visuals hold your attention as your trip down Nightmare Alley proves to be surprisingly lush as its genius director takes on another tour of the beautifully ugly… no monsters required.