“Nightmare Alley,” the latest neo-classical psychological thriller from Guillermo del Toro, hearkens back to the director’s roots in style and form while pushing his oeuvre forward from the supernatural elements in the Oscar winner’s “The Shape of Water.”
Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle is an isolated man from the opening frame, a wayward individual aware of his worth but can’t find the edge he seeks to prove himself. Visually, Phoenix Critics Circle-nominated cinematographer Dan Laustsen uses shadow play to define the character, offering an image of someone who can play and will be played throughout the story. Del Toro and Cooper build on this image throughout the story, both in character and visual style.
As Stan builds his repertoire of characters, they become touchstones in his life – they give him meaning and a way forward. From the dialog, we don’t truly understand why the character starts the way he does; however, through the visual medium, we know that Stan seeks to start his life over, that he’ll push his chances to the limit.
When Stan meets Clem (Willem Dafoe), a carnival owner, he finds an outlet. Creative, imaginative and, inventive, Stan sees the opportunity to establish roots while hiding in the sludge. It isn’t fair to say that a carnival is the lowest form of employment. Instead, it seems to be an excellent place to hide from yourself, especially when the film is set. The relationship between Dafoe and Cooper is brilliant; they both feed off each other’s energy, and a sense of enablement is formed. That sense of enablement fuels Cooper’s brilliant performance and only gets better as the story moves on.
Co-screenwriters del Toro and Kim Morgan surround Stan with a wide variety of talent, fueling the character’s need to be recognized and, to a lesser degree, wanted while leaning a bit on his past. Within the carnival, Stan takes an interest in the acts performed by Madam Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn) and uses those traits to build on his front, attracting the interest of Molly (Rooney Mara). Amongst the carnival’s cast of characters, Ron Perlman’s Bruno physically and mentally stands out; one, good right hook, and I’d be out for the rest of the movie! Tim Blake Nelson and Clifton Collins Jr as, seemingly, semblances of Stan’s past are also standouts.
There’s a sense that Stan can do no wrong, that he’s insulated himself enough that he is bulletproof. However, feelings and looks can be deceiving and as deceptive as the story moves forward, where he attracts the attention of Cate Blanchett’s Lilith Ritter. Lilith is as cold as ice, a bridge between Stan’s past and future (California’s “Bridge to nowhere” comes to mind.) The story also works well with Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist,” more in time, look, and character than similar elements.
Del Toro throws even more at us in this slightly lengthy film. There is little to engender sympathy for Stan, his trail leaves behind nothing but mayhem. There is empathy for his journey, though. The character forms enough connections to feel his goodness, even if that’s not where the character wants to be. Stan, Cooper, and del Toro challenge us throughout the story. The ultimate payoff for the character is in the journey as the environment shifts around us and time marches forward. Richard Jenkins is easily the highlight as the wealthy Ezra Grindle. The mood also shifts as control slips away from Stan. Or does it?
That’s the question that “Nightmare Alley” leaves us with. We are watching a man’s nightmare unfold; the story and characters are so narrowly focused and convincingly told that we don’t get a moment’s respite to question the act until it’s all over. One performance from the film’s second half that deserves mention is Holt McCallanay’s Anderson, Bruno’s opposite number. Even with his build, McCallany is physically visible while remaining a chameleon: the dread and terror of things going wrong in Stan’s actions.
The mood generated by the story and performances is only enhanced with the technical team, undoubtedly owing to Nathan Johnson’s score, which heightens the sense of dread, longing, and reflectiveness of Stan. Tamara Deverell’s production design highlights the dregs from which Stan starts and the neo-classical elegance Stan finds later in the film. Luis Sequeira’s costume design further elevates the look, especially with Blanchett’s ensemble.
Del Toro again demonstrates his understanding of the human condition, leaving us with more questions than answers that warrant future viewings. “Nightmare Alley,” adapted from the 1946 novel of the same name, and the second cinematic telling following the classic 1947 film (something I wasn’t aware of going until about 10 minutes before my screening), lulls you in and throws you to the wolves with Cooper’s unhinged performance.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro & Kim Morgan, based on “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham
Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn
R, 150 minutes, Searchlight Pictures