Guillermo del Toro has pulled off a neat trick. Like many filmmakers before him, he has reached the “blank check” sweet spot of his career, that grace period following his big Oscar breakthrough in which he is free to pursue whatever odd passion project strikes his fancy. Unlike such fellow onetime cult directors as Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi, however, del Toro has somehow made it to the big leagues without losing the weirdness of his early work: his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water is a deeply odd film about a woman in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and even his forays into superhero movies are distinctive enough that one might forget they aren’t del Toro originals. Del Toro is at the stage where he can push his very hardest sells, and, with Nightmare Alley, it’s clear that he’s done just that.
At first glance, Nightmare Alley might seem like an odd fit for del Toro at this juncture: it is, by my count, his first film with no actual supernatural or science fiction elements, and its cast of big-name stars in sumptuous period wardrobe could be read as a play for respectability. But beneath its glossy exterior, Nightmare Alley is pure del Toro: perhaps his darkest work since his early independent days, and a joltingly spooky night at the movies.
Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, a drifter on the run from a mysterious past who takes refuge in a traveling carnival, lorded over by barker Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe). Stan proves an able worker, but his real interest lies in the carnival’s showmanship– particularly the phony mentalism practiced by fortuneteller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her sloppy-drunk husband and accomplice, Pete (David Strathairn). Stan’s talents soon outshine his mentors’, and he decides to go solo, taking off with “living battery” showgirl Molly (Rooney Mara) and bilking members of high society by claiming to channel deceased loved ones. Like any good grifter, however, Stan can’t help but scan the horizon for the next big score. He finds it thanks to unscrupulous psychoanalyst Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who sells him confidential information about a notorious local tycoon, the wonderfully named Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). It doesn’t take a psychic to surmise that Stan’s plan will come crashing down– noir rules, after all– but can he make it out with his life?
From its earliest moments, it is clear that del Toro is flexing his post-Oscar clout; Nightmare Alley is a film which probably didn’t need to be terribly expensive, but del Toro spares no expense in bringing it to the screen. The world these characters inhabit may be ugly, but it looks positively gorgeous. It is likely that no director since Tod Browning is more qualified than del Toro to decorate a 1930s sideshow, and every inch of the circus is filled with vibrant, hand-painted banners and shelves upon shelves of “pickled punks” (the crude industry term for deformed fetuses placed on display for public view). Once Stan goes “legit,” we are dropped into an art deco world of luscious reds and golds. As Nightmare Alley unfolds, one gets the sense that del Toro has been dreaming about these locations for years, and finally has the resources to bring them to life.
Of course, a sideshow is nothing without its performers, and del Toro is here working with possibly his strongest cast ever. The standout, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Blanchett, who gets to fully sink her teeth into a classic ‘40s-style femme fatale, pitching her performance somewhere between Barbara Stanwyck and Mae West. The rest of the supporting cast flit in and out of the picture (save for Mara, who serves as the voice of Stan’s conscience like a pin-up guardian angel), but each understands exactly what they’re doing and what kind of movie they’re in. But I was most impressed by the way del Toro populates his film with choice one-offs played by familiar faces; in addition to the names listed above, I was delighted to see Ron Perlman as a kind-hearted strongman, Mary Steenburgen as a gullible dowager, Clifton Collins, Jr. (of this year’s excellent Jockey) as a carny musician, and Tim Blake Nelson as a rival barker (Stephen McHattie and Hannibal’s Lara Jean Chorostecki are apparently in there as well, but I must have blinked and missed them). The result is a film in which one can imagine that the bit players have rich stories of their own, and it’s a testament to the care with which del Toro crafted his world.
Then there’s Cooper. Nightmare Alley is adapted from a cult classic 1946 pulp novel by William Lindsay Gresham, which rivals Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love for the title of Great American Feel-Bad Freak Show Novel. Gresham’s book is a fascinating mix of psychodrama, tarot-influenced mysticism, and carny culture*, but it is, at its core, an inversion of the classic Horatio Alger American Dream narrative: the story of a man who crawls his way up from the gutters to the upper echelons (and, of course, back down again) by being an absolutely abhorrent human being. Cooper plays Carlisle as an intelligent beast, marrying his Star Is Born drawl with a shifty eye, constantly scanning each situation for a scrap of information he can play to his advantage. Just like Simon Rex’s porn star antihero in this year’s Red Rocket, Carlisle is a malignant force, but he manages to frame himself as doing a public service: look at the joy he brings these grieving parents by supposedly contacting their lost sons! Stan’s downfall is satisfying (I won’t spoil it, but those who have seen Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film adaptation know that it leads to one of film noir’s great punchlines), but it’s thrilling to see how far he can push his con.
If there is a central flaw to Nightmare Alley, it may be that del Toro is simply too pure a soul. Gresham was, by all accounts, a tortured individual, driven just as mad by Freudianism, theosophy, and booze as his protagonist. Del Toro, on the other hand, can generally be described as “jolly.” Where Gresham casts a jaundiced eye towards his skid-row world and characters, one gets the feeling that del Toro unabashedly loves them: the grifters, the freaks, and even the sleazy faux-spiritualist cons. Del Toro puts monsters on screen because he loves them; Gresham, along with the noir auteurs from whom del Toro draws inspiration, would just as well like to see them all burn.
But the fact is that I love them too, and as such I was an absolute sucker for Nightmare Alley. We don’t get many films like it these days: gleefully perverse, perversely old fashioned, with a Tales from the Crypt morality and a breathtaking color palette. It feels like a blockbuster from an alternate universe, where big-budget movies can still be built around a great cast of movie stars and a killer narrative and visual hook. Time will tell whether it will connect with audiences (even without the triple threats of Peter Parker, Neo, and Omicron), but I can’t wait to get back in line outside the tent and pony up another nickel.
* – The book is particularly interesting as a documentary of sorts on the spiritualism rackets of the early 20th century; it contains, among other things, the earliest known documented use of the term “cold reading.”
dir. Guillermo del Toro
Opens Friday, 12/17 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre
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