You may remember that Guillermo del Toro’s last film — the strange, somewhat surprisingly Oscar-laden adult fairytale The Shape of Water — ended, appropriately, in water: a plunging turquoise expanse, an eternal resting place for two doomed, sinking, but finally unencumbered lovers. His latest film, however, begins on literal fire, consuming the rickety remains of a wooden cottage, where an occupied bed also surrenders to the blaze. The keeper of the flames, as it were, will soon to be introduced to us as Stanton Carlisle, looking on at his handiwork with an expression you just know is impassive, even it’s already hidden in shadow.
This is our welcome to Nightmare Alley, and a deliciously unwelcoming one it is too: the shift in the elements is as clear a tip-off as any that this is to be a film as nasty and aloof as Shape was rapt and romantic. That hasn’t been a natural mode for del Toro, whose films tend to pump warm blood even at their most grotesque; it was a surprise to hear he wanted to re-adapt William Lindsay Gresham’s harder-than-hardboiled 1946 novel of carny underworld corruption, already vividly filmed in 1947 with a fully refrigerated heart and the chilly blankness of Tyrone Power working in its favor. The question wasn’t really whether or not del Toro could top Edmund Goulding’s film. Rather, could a sleek, big-budget remake limbo even lower than its predecessor, fully dragging itself through the mud and blood of Gresham’s filthy America?
Perhaps not, though it’s not for want of trying — nor for want of money, stars or, well, anything else, really. If del Toro’s gorgeously appointed film can’t match Goulding’s gritty pulp thriller for pure seediness, that’s because it’s a bit too lavishly constructed and cared-for to conjure a true spirit of film noir nihilism. But that splendor comes with its own, subtly different rewards. There’s a kind of contact high to be gained from the sheer, dripping expense of the film’s exquisitely designed surfaces, a suitably excessive match for the decadence and money-grubbing that consumes its notably unheroic hero. You can always count on del Toro to put the “grand” in Grand Guignol. Nightmare Alley is no exception, though it’s a little dreamier than it should be.
The first half makes it clear why del Toro’s would be attracted to this out-of-time material. As a filmmaker fixated on strange bodies and stranger behavior, he’s always had a flair for the carnivalesque — why wouldn’t he leap at the chance to plunge into the musty American mythos of carnival culture? We open in 1939, in an America feeling the first anxieties of the Second World War, though the show goes on at the traveling midwest fair overseen by cynical ringmaster Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe), a ragged, proudly freaky enterprise happy to adopt any shiftless drifter with no place in civilized society. Nobody fits that description more neatly than Stanton, played by Bradley Cooper as a kind of sunken all-American dreamboat — an opportunist fresh from burning down his cursed childhood home and who meets no one’s gaze as his eyes fix on the prize.
He’s made for this world, in other words, and rises swiftly through its ranks, shown the ropes and taught some tricks by watchful, weary tarot reader Zeena (a wonderful Toni Collette, practically demanding a dedicated film of her own) and her washed-up husband (David Strathairn). Buoyed by their mentorship and his attraction to virginal electricity conductor Molly (Rooney Mara) — the white rose in the carnival’s staff of weeds — Stanton comes to believe he has a gift for performative mentalism, an act that can elevate him from the carnival ensemble to solo stardom.
Cut to 1941, where he and Molly are now wowing the wealthy elite of the supper-club circuit in a seemingly perma-frozen Buffalo, New York. The couple’s carny workwear has been traded in for velvet smoking jackets, their caravans for plush Art Deco hotel suites. Their act is all smoke and mirrors, of course, though Stanton is so good at reading people to his advantage to he hardly needs psychic powers. Similarly gifted in this department is slinky psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who believes her confessional access and his con artistery could combine nicely to fleece her elite clientele. It’s a collaboration that can only go south into Hades: Stanton may be sharp, but he strangely can’t spot a satin-wrapped femme fatale when she’s smouldering right in front of him, even when her name is Lilith.
In contrast to his gleefully lurid evocation of the carnival scene — all grimy bunting and creaking wheels and jarred monstrosities, seemingly detailed by production designer Tamara Deverell with Dolly Parton’s “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap” maxim in mind — this hyper-styled noir pastiche is newer territory for del Toro. He doesn’t fully get the genre’s terseness: at over 150 minutes of seamy spectacle, this is a film that could stand to kill some darlings in grisly fashion.
But its commitment to the collapsing hopelessness of Stanton’s story is impressively short on compromise: managing even the challenging, book-faithful ending that the original film, presumably under studio duress, balked at. That descent is carried by the fearless scumminess of Cooper’s remarkable performance. Always an actor who’s best when tetchily undermining his own alpha swagger — see also American Sniper, or A Star Is Born — he’s equally impossible to love and look away from. His barely contained sense of inner ruin is ideally complemented, too, by the eerie, alabaster poise of Blanchett’s butter-blonde Medusa; it’s taken too long for the Aussie actor to luxuriate in the genre she was born for, and she doesn’t waste the opportunity. Nobody wastes much of anything, for that matter, in Nightmare Alley, the lushest portrait of spiritual desolation you’re ever likely to see. And why not? If you’re going to tour the fires of hell, you may as well take the scenic route.