Guillermo del Toro, one of the filmmakers I most admire, has few peers when it comes to visual composition and compelling storytelling. Perhaps I’ve set the bar too high where he’s concerned or have lost my critical bearing as his latest, “Nightmare Alley,” has been getting mostly positive reviews and appearing on many “Best of” lists. I don’t get it.
To be sure, this adaptation of William Lindsay Greham’s novel is a stunning visual feast, sporting one of the most lavish and intriguing production designs you’re likely to see this or any year. Yet this film noir throwback ends up being a long, slow slough, a movie that lacks a sense of urgency, the director purposely lingering over the lush world he’s created at the expense of the story. The sort of film is the reason “Making of” books exist. It’s an immersive experience, one that you want to get lost in so as to appreciate every minute detail del Toro and his production designer Tamara Deverell have created. The director allows the viewer to do just that, but at a cost.
Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, in one of his best performances), is a two-bit con artist, a drifter constantly looking for an angle to exploit. He finds it when he stumbles into a carnival run by Clem (Willem Dafoe), who gives him an odd job and three squares a day. Tired of merely setting up and taking down tents, Carlisle weasels his way into the lives of Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn), eventually taking over their mindreading act that’s not quite as sharp as it one was due to the latter’s alcoholism. He eventually woos Molly (Rooney Mara), who has a one-note act revolving around electricity, convincing her that bigger things await them once they perfect his mesmerist routine and head to the big city, where there are bigger fish to be fleeced.
Jump ahead three years, and sure enough, Carlisle and Molly are reading minds in a posh nightclub, impressing the rich with general predictions about their future. However, he soon crosses paths with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who provides him with secrets her patients have entrusted her with. Carlisle does private readings for them, revealing things he couldn’t possibly know, deeply impressing his well-heeled marks, one of which is industrialist Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), who asks that he communicate with his long-dead fiancé.
It comes as no surprise that Carlisle is unable to resist this big score, flies too close to the sun and gets burned. This is film noir’s bread and butter, and knowing that it will all fall apart makes the movie that much more tedious. It’s a good 40 minutes too long, and the screenplay del Toro’s penned with Kim Newman is closer to the original novel than the 1947 Tyrone Power feature, the director has taken a few liberties himself with the story that muddy the narrative waters, notably making Carlisle a bit more ambiguous as a character rather than the outright lout his in the book.
In addition to its sumptuous look, the cast keeps us engaged throughout. It’s a delight to watch performers of this caliber wallow in a story as sordid as this, each relishing the opportunity to bring to life these colorful characters. To be sure, there’s a good movie somewhere in this bloated effort; however, it would take an outside party – someone not so enamored with it – to trim the fat to realize the potential “Nightmare Alley” contains.
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