Fresh off directing The Shape of Water, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has some clout in Hollywood. For his next cinematic trick, del Toro isn't just working with a star-studded roster of acting talent. He's also delivering something more grounded than his previous projects. No fish monsters, no superheroes, no giant robots, no allegorical fairy tale beasts. Nightmare Alley is the most grounded in reality del Toro's ever been as a director. Committing to realism leads to some intriguing performances and visuals, ones that couldn't have been accomplished in his other directorial efforts. Strangely, though, Nightmare Alley also lacks the thoughtfulness of his prior stylized endeavors.
Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) begins Nightmare Alley disposing of a corpse and walking away from a burning home. From there, he hops a bus and ends up at a carnival fairground, where he ends up securing work performing manual labor for Clement Hately (Willem Dafoe). While working at this carnival, Carlisle sparks up a romance with Mary Elizabeth Cahill (Rooney Mara) and becomes proficient in the act of clairvoyance, or at least pretending he is. Able to trick audiences into thinking he has this fascinating fit, Cahill and Carlisle set off on their own to perform a solo show. This program attracts the attention of Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who sees right through Carlisle...and also becomes embroiled in his latest scheme, an elaborate plot that could either make or break this conman.
If I have a major grievance with Nightmare Alley, it makes the unfortunate mistake of believing that inherently making things very quiet and slow-paced will automatically make your movie meaningful. Those qualities aren't bad, but all-time classics with glacial pacing aren't classics because of their glacial pacing. They're classics because this pacing allows one to appreciate a certain atmosphere, or subtle editing details, or the finer nuances of the performances. Unfortunately, Nightmare Alley's screenplay, penned by del Toro and Kim Morgan, falls prey to this in several spots where it opts for slow-burn grimness but can't quite come up with themes worthy of this approach. This includes a drawn-out ending whose conclusion you can see coming a mile away.
This isn't the default mode of the movie, but it happens enough to make Nightmare Alley the weakest del Toro film since the original Hellboy in 2004. On the plus side, its overtly bleak nature makes it work well as a modern homage to classic noirs and both del Toro and Morgan show a welcome ability to letting everyone in the story be totally duplicitous. There are no kind audience surrogates here, Carlisle is just one of many people looking out for themselves. This wall-to-wall nastiness even leads to some quietly cutting social commentary, like the camera lingering on Carlisle plopping coins into a Salvation Army tin. Wonder if there are any parallels between that organization and a man saying he's doing good while only engaging in malicious behavior?
The carnival ground backdrop also allows del Toro to get his freak on with the visuals in a pleasingly grotesque manner. A dead baby's carcass, complete with a strange third eye on its forehead, floats in a jar of green goo while all the interior locations in this carnival are adorned with impeccably-realized expressionistic visuals. This filmmaker may not be bringing out the aliens or monsters that dominated his prior features, but these sets do show that del Toro hasn't missed a beat in his vision for memorably stylized backdrops. Period-era costumes are also spectacular looking while the heavy use of snow-covered landscape in the third act also results in pleasing-looking imagery.
As for the performances, it's an overall solid collection of talent, though I felt Bradley Cooper suffered most from Nightmare Alley mistaking inherent restraint for substance. Cooper's got several memorable moments in his performance, including his final scene captured in an extended single-take, but other times he fades a bit too much into the background. Most of the other players, namely Blanchett and Dafoe, are playing variations on their movie star personas, but they're entertaining to watch, so it's difficult to complain. The major standout turns out to be Richard Jenkins in a small but pivotal role as the reclusive Ezra Grindle. Leave it to Jenkins to leave a mighty impression with minimal screentime.
There's a welcome sense of creative ambition in Nightmare Alley, as del Toro channels the horrors man, rather than monsters that go bump in the night, are capable of. Lingering on these terrors doesn't necessarily result in a production as thoughtful as its tone would suggest and certain storytelling beats (including rushed shifts in Carlisle's relationship to both Cahill and Grindle in the third act) undercut its thematic goals. Still, it's a del Toro movie, so it looks beautiful and leaves you with idiosyncratic chilling moments. Even a lesser effort from this filmmaker is bound to deliver some kind of impression.
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