Guillermo del Toro has always had a special fondness for misfits and monsters. His Hellboy films made superheroes out of paranormal beings, while his most recent Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water, spun a tender romance between a mute woman and an amphibious fish-man. That the writer-director would take on Nightmare Alley next makes sense. The melancholic thriller about a carnival con man is based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham that was adapted for the big screen once before, in 1947. Plenty of directors would have fun remaking a landmark noir, but del Toro would be most drawn to the one set inside a circus tent.
Nightmare Alley follows Stan Carlisle (played by Bradley Cooper), a mustachioed stranger with a grim past (his father died under mysterious circumstances). He takes a job at a local carnival and quickly shows a talent for faux clairvoyance, rising to notoriety and eventually starting to believe in his own mystical prowess. The story’s a classic Icarus tale, or, befitting the setting, a Ferris-wheel narrative, one in which great fame and fortune come before a nasty fall. Because del Toro isn’t working under the same 1940s cultural censorship, his adaptation is more lurid and violent than Edmund Goulding’s earlier version, and it delves into the darkness of Gresham’s novel. Why is the movie such a slog then?
The opening chunk of the film, set at the traveling carnival run by the sinister Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe), is the strongest, because it’s where del Toro’s passions lie. In an early scene, Stan looks on in curious fear as Clem introduces his carnival’s “geek,” an upsetting performer who bites off the heads of chickens. The job is the nastiest one available, reserved for alcoholics and drug addicts whom Clem can manipulate into doing such dirty work. Stan regards being a geek as a fate worse than death, and del Toro presents the sequence with the appropriate amount of bloodcurdling terror. At the same time, his depiction of the geek has more than an ounce of sympathy to it, a wistful sadness that ends up being Nightmare Alley’s prevailing mood.
All of the movie’s best characters have a similarly tragic edge, including Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn), a retired mentalist whose gift for “cold reading” audience members has diminished thanks to his drunkenness. His wife, Zeena (Toni Collette), still keeps their psychic act going, but she knows that her glory days are behind her, as does Clem, who ruefully tells Stan about the underhanded tactics he uses to lure new geeks into his traveling act. Carnival life in the 1940s has a fascinating ecology that I would have loved to see del Toro explore even more, but Nightmare Alley is mostly concerned with the desires and egoism of Stan alone.
Stan picks up the tricks of the clairvoyance trade from Zeena and Pete and hits the road with his fellow carnival ingenue Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara). The couple become a wildly successful double act in Buffalo, New York; Stan, blindfolded, can tell people their name, possessions, and deepest desires. Del Toro is unsurprisingly attentive to the particulars of their stagecraft, dedicating long sequences to the complex dialogue system Molly and Stan use to give each other hints, the personal details Stan picks up on to guess audience members’ secrets, and the pageantry they use to distract viewers from their ploys. After all, del Toro is a showman too, who always offers theatrical flourishes in even his darkest works.
Nightmare Alley is, in fact, his first major film without any supernatural elements, even though all of Stan’s success is based on his supposed connection to the spirit world. Maybe that absence is why the narrative often feels sludgy and drawn out; del Toro’s passion for con artistry is more muted than his love for genuine flights of fancy. And though nobody in the ensemble is outright bad, Cooper struggles to convey any profound sinisterness as Stan, while Mara is stuck as an uninspired love interest with no stakes of her own. Cate Blanchett shows up halfway through the film as Lilith Ritter, a femme fatale psychiatrist who introduces Stan to high society, but she’s sleepwalking in the role, as glamorous as she is one-dimensional.
Early in the film, Pete warns Stan to never do a “spook show,” carnival parlance for passing himself off as a genuine medium who can commune with the dead. Of course, that’s exactly the path Stan eventually goes down, but the film takes more than an hour to reveal any dangerous consequences. Again and again, Nightmare Alley telegraphs where its plot is going, then is way too slow in actually getting there. Stan’s inflated sense of his own powers will clearly lead to his doom, and Lilith is clearly not to be trusted, but by the time those big revelations hit, the snail’s-pace plotting has deadened the shock. Nightmare Alley is quite handsomely mounted and thematically resonant material for del Toro, but for a thriller to connect, it needs to deliver some real thrills along the way.