The world is on fire in Nightmare Alley. A house on the prairie burns as a man walks away with the weight of an Edward Hopper painting. Lurking throughout the background, the flames of World War II begin to bellow. Then there is damnation of the soul, looming over these characters, most of all Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle. He is a man born hungry, a shark that smiles and fast talks while planning his next bite. But this is classic film noir and there are no free meals. Stan’s desperation is the American Dream, to grab for himself a better life. After falling in with a traveling carnival, he quickly takes to the art of playing a fake psychic. Using it as a step up out of the carny life, Stan begins to chase the elite of Chicago even as the ground begins to fall out from under him. Guillermo del Toro’s 11th feature film finds the director in a more subdued mood. Known for the fantastic and the horrific, in this Alley there’s nothing of the former and the latter is pretty tame compared to what del Toro has done in the past. His vision of noir is more than cigarette smoke and mirrors and femme fatales, though there’s certainly plenty of all those elements. Instead, the noir roots run deeper in these characters, reaching into universal wells of hunger, to be loved, rich, or powerful.
Bradley Cooper has had a wild career. From getting his start in Wet Hot American Summer to breaking out in The Hangover and critical success as a director with A Star is Born. Even with his comedic start, he has a long record of playing characters with a dark streak but here it’s a mile wide. Cooper imbues Stan with a simmering anger, always just below the surface and ready to boil over, but there’s heartbreak in him, especially when you get flashes of the good man he could have been before being swallowed by avarice once again. But leading man as he may be, the movie is fully stolen any time Cate Blanchett comes on screen as Lilith Ritter, a shadowy psychologist who aids Stan’s schemes. Blanchett is clearly enjoying the role as her gaze smoulders and every line delivered with the seduction a knife’s edge. Her role is so captivating that you wish there was more of her sparring with Stan. Those hoping for a Carol reunion with Rooney Mara (Stan’s partner and love interest) will be disappointed as the pair share only a line in passing, with Mara getting significantly more screen time. Playing a lost lamb in over her head, she’s great in her supporting role as is all the supporting cast which features Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, and perpetual del Toro collaborator, Ron Perlman. Dafoe as always is a highlight, here as a slimy carnival barker, and it makes you wish that del Toro and he had teamed up before.
Bigger than any of the characters though are the sets and art design. Guillermo del Toro is a director who understands the importance of the physical, whether it’s pale, monstrous men or the control room inside the head of a giant robot. While there’s nothing monstrous except for the hearts of men, the scenery throughout the movie looms large, threatening to swallow these people and their schemes. The carnival scenes that make up the beginning of the film are clearly in del Toro’s wheelhouse, especially a walk through of a leaking and dilapidated funhouse. As the movie progresses and Stan climbs the social ladder, the audience is treated to coldly resplendent art deco in its prime (Not to wish an existing IP upon a director but del Toro would crush a Bioshock adaptation). It’s a heightened world, the shadows deeper than ours, but it’s wonderfully easy to get lost in the surroundings as we watch Stan swallowed by his own darkness.
Even with a runtime creeping up towards two and a half hours, Nightmare Alley always offers something engaging on screen, be it the cast or scenery. As the piano-driven soundtrack by Nathan Johnson (cousin to Rian, of Last Jedi and Knives Out fame) slinks through the story, blood is spilled and cigarette smoke billows like so much San Francisco fog. It all feels like the perfect late autumn movie, where the magic of Halloween has waned and you’re in that liminal space between holidays where the cold wind waves the dead grass. Everyone is huddled and furtive, keeping their secrets close. Guillermo del Toro has long been a champion of the big budget genre picture, from the fairy tale darkness of Pan’s Labyrinth to the gothic romance of Crimson Peak, and now with film noir. The trapping will be familiar to those with a basic grasp of the genre but there is much sensory delight in how well they are constructed and performed at this level of craftsmanship.
An MFA graduate from Oklahoma State University, Wyeth Leslie is a poet and author interested in the intersection between technology, the environment, and human relationships. His writings have been featured in publications such as The Vital Sparks, Lost Futures, and Haywire Magazine. He can be found staring into the abyss on Twitter: @Wyeth_was_here