There’s a scene about midway through Nightmare Alley where psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and carny conman Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) exchange haughty dialogue in the former’s office. The decor, with its sweeping linear design, golden surface tones, and charmingly passé futurist concept is the kind of look that would feel right at home in both Citizen Kane and The Hudsucker Proxy, both in the world of Dick Tracy and of Burton’s Gotham City. Out the window we see the snow falling silently on a cold earth, but inside, the heat is on. The scene is cozy at its outset, as these two too-smart-for-their-own-good characters size one another up. But soon the coziness gives way to passion, both sexual and avaricious in nature. It’s a long, deliberate scene, and both actors spend the entirety of it chewing their surroundings to a pulp. It’s simultaneously quiet and loud, big and small. It’s scary, sexy, welcoming, and unsettling all in equal measure. It’s a parade of contradictions that is pure Guillermo del Toro, and which, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, could sink a movie before it begins. In the hands of del Toro, however, it is absolute perfection, and its mixing of tones acts as a microcosm of the film at large.
Based on the 1946 novel of the same name, Nightmare Alley tells the story of Stanton Carlisle, a drifter and a conman who, after taking up residence in the midway of a carnival, develops a successful mentalist act (think John Edwards — remember that piece of shit??). His proficiency at taking advantage of his marks (and the women who cross his path) makes for quick success, but as we all know, power is an intoxicant like no other, and it has brought many a man to his knees…
This marks the second adaptation of the novel, the first occurring just a year after its publication (currently on Criterion Channel, and very much worth your time). The previous adaptation is a smaller story, focused primarily on plot and secondarily on the characterization of Carlisle. This new version does a much deeper dive into Carlisle’s motivations, and fleshes out the surrounding characters and world much more thoroughly. I can’t speak as to how much of what we see is restored from the novel and how much was created by del Toro, but I imagine it’s a solid mix of both (I plan to read the book in order to suss this out). The 1947 film is much leaner and faster paced, while del Toro’s version is a very slow burn with a more complicated thematic structure (it feels, as they say, like a book).
A few years back, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin said something that stuck with me. During an interview, he was asked why he spends so much time describing food in his already long books. His response was that he writes fiction, and fiction is meant to be enjoyed, not finished. Basically, if your goal in reading a story is to simply get through it, what’s the point of reading it at all? I’ve taken this notion with me any time a film is as deliberately paced as Nightmare Alley. It’s important,when taking in films like this, to live in the moment and let the fiction envelop you. Sometimes the measurements are off and the scales err toward boring, other times the added detail feels extraneous, but when that sweet spot is hit, there’s nothing better. Nightmare Alley finds that sweet spot and sustains it to feature length. It is a film to be savored. Not an inch of the screen is ever wasted, nor a second of its runtime. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I never wanted it to end.
Bradley Cooper is an excellent actor who is very often miscast, bringing pathos and his baby blues to roles that just don’t suit him (Affleck had a similar problem for a while), but he’s perfectly cast here. In fact, I’d say it’s his finest work yet. Cooper looks the part of a 1940s gentleman as much as he does a chameleonic conman. Tasked with playing across from both Cate Blanchett, an actress who is always keyed up beyond what’s required (and we love her for it), and Rooney Mara, whose ability to mine drama from silence is unmatched, Cooper exercises the breadth of his abilities, code-switching multiple times in a single scene dependent entirely upon who he shares it with. This is how conmen succeed, and Bradley Cooper(‘s Stanton Carlisle) could probably sell me a bottle of sand in the middle of a desert.
From a craft perspective, Nightmare Alley ranks alongside The Shape of Water as del Toro’s best. This is certainly owed in part to it being a perfect marriage of artist to material (del Toro makes every movie look like a circus, so a carnival midway is a playground in which he thrives). But I wish to also compliment cinematographer Dan Laustsen, whose longtime collaboration with del Toro has netted nothing but gorgeous looking films, no two of which can be accused of looking quite the same. No two sound the same either, so credit is also due to composer Nathan Johnson, who finds the feel of a carnival without resorting to a calliope.
You already know Toni Collette crushes it, so I don’t need to say anything. She’s the best.
Nightmare Alley is a thoroughly compelling, often scary fable that puts together a veritable who’s who of character actors into an exceedingly delicious tale of romance, intrigue, murder, and deception, made by a master craftsman at the top of his game.