The 1947 film of Nightmare Alley begins easily enough, with the main character working in a traveling carnival. Guillermo del Toro’s remake begins with that guy burying a human corpse under the floorboards of his house before setting it on fire. For all the new film’s trappings of horror, this is one Del Toro film that has no vampires or ghosts or other supernatural creatures, just the tragedy of a man who dares to do too much. That original film is really good. The new one is, too, in a lusher way.
Bradley Cooper portrays Stanton Carlisle, who disposes of that corpse thus and joins a carnival in rural Oklahoma in 1939. Starting as a day laborer, he listens patiently while the owner (Willem Dafoe) discusses the inhumane way the circus acquires its “geeks” — desperate addicts who bite off chicken heads to revolt and entertain audiences. An alcoholic ex-psychic named Pete (David Strathairn) teaches him the tricks of appearing to read minds, and Stanton’s natural flair for showmanship surfaces when he shows “Magic Molly” (Rooney Mara) how to improve her act where she appears to electrocute herself. He and Molly run off after learning Pete’s methods, and two years later, they’re headlining at Buffalo’s fanciest nightclubs. When a powerful judge (Peter MacNeill) begs Stanton to conduct a private séance and contact his dead son, Stanton teams up with the man’s unscrupulous psychotherapist Lilith (Cate Blanchett) to feed him information so he can take the judge for his money.
Both this film and the original are adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. Unlike the original, this one is in color and sports that burnished look that we’ve come to expect from Del Toro. It perhaps looks too good, as Edmund Goulding’s film makes that carnival appear convincingly down-at-the-heel. Then again, Del Toro’s willingness to gross us out saves his movie from being too tasteful — Stanton beats one man so severely that his nose caves in, and the camera lingers on the gruesome effects of another man having his head splattered against a car’s front bumper. The original movie couldn’t show us things like this.
The script by Del Toro and Kim Morgan boasts impressive psychological depth, as Pete twigs to Stanton as a fellow abused kid and says that they’re the best at their jobs since they learn how to read people at an early age. Later, Stanton does the same to Lilith, in a showpiece scene where the shrink tries to debunk the mentalist at one of his performances and finds the tables turned on her. This and other bits allow Cooper to show his charisma in all its fearsome power.
I’m a bit disappointed that the movie resorts to the slutty psychiatrist who sleeps with her patients. I thought we’d left that stereotype back in the 1990s. (If women with psych degrees all acted like that, we’d all happily be in therapy.) Nevertheless, amid the carnival freaks — whom the movie shows to have resoundingly normal lives when they’re not performing — the real twisted case is Stanton, whose past condemns him to a life where no amount of riches and fame can satisfy him. Nightmare Alley is like Uncut Gems as the story of a guy who can’t stop, but while it lacks the pell-mell pace of the Safdie brothers’ film, it has greater tragic impact. Those old film-noir masters would have taken their hats off to this cautionary tale that builds to its ruthless conclusion.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Written by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan, based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. Rated R.