It’s no compliment when you can predict the final scene of a movie simply by watching the first few minutes (and no, I hadn’t previously seen the 1947 version). Particularly when the cumulative effect is of a Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt episode but five times the length, and thus distended beyond all bounds of reason. While it’s true that Nightmare Alley has almost no bona fide supernatural elements, it plays in the much same way as those anthology tales, albeit crawling rather than propelling itself towards the final “twist” moment.
Lilith: The thing you need to know is, if you displease the right people, the world closes in on you very, very fast.
I’ve seen this referenced as a perfect ending, in terms of neatly tying up the protagonist’s trajectory, but such sense of “perfection” is only conveyed if the telling avoids a laborious fait accompli (it may read differently in William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. I hope so). Guillermo del Toro entirely fails in this department. Indeed, behind the showy art direction – see also The Shape of Water – a weary familiarity quickly presents itself. These overblown neo-noir period pictures all begin to look and sound very similar after a spell – Shutter Island, Angel Heart – owing to their leads’ faux-period descents into hell of one description or other.
Perhaps that’s their attraction: confessionals borne of their makers’ Faustian pact (notably, Leo was considering the movie – superficially strange, as it’s so thematically similar to Shutter Island. On which subject, Scorsese raved over Nightmare Alley, averring to its fidelity to “the animating spirit of film noir”). Mostly, though, I’m baffled that del Toro wanted to make this. Of course, that’s nothing new, as I’m baffled that he wanted to make Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak. They’re overblown, undernourished geek doodles that in no way justify the time and effort a talented filmmaker with studios as his oyster should be indulging. He’s fallen a long way since his creative peak of Pan’s Labyrinth; the more tools he has to play with, the less interesting his pictures become.
Del Toro said he only later saw the earlier movie, having initially been passed the novel by Ron Pearlman. I’m presuming it remained an influence, though, as he appears to have decided the only way to face down the 1947 flick was to make this both more elaborate (not too difficult) and less forgiving (and thus more authentic to the source material). Unfortunately, very little in the way of this ornamentation is necessary, and much of it actually gets in the way of sureness of telling.
Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) burns down a house – turns out the body inside was dad’s, whom he left to freeze to death after stealing his blanket – and joins the carnival. He learns the tricks of a clairvoyant act and leaves to set up on his own, in partnership with Electric Girl Molly (Rooney Mara). When he subsequently meets shrink Lilith (Cate Blanchett), the temptation to offer a verboten “spook show” to the wealthy bereaved of Buffalo gets the better of him, and his carefully nurtured façade begins to disintegrate.
Cooper is introduced with an extravagant Indiana Jones audition silhouette but proceeds to prove a bum choice. Not because he isn’t a good actor, but because you need someone you’re willing to take this journey with, even as everything they do and are is entirely unsympathetic. Bradley’s unable to convey that, such that the latter section of the movie comprises empty thrills; you may be caught up in the mechanics of a scene, but at best, you’re only concerned for Molly’s welfare.
Mostly, though, the failures are in del Toro’s over-deliberate, over-telegraphed approach to the storytelling; he allows himself too much time and indulgence and feels no onus to make hard choices that would help translate the screenplay. Every meal doesn’t need three courses, but Guillermo seems to have lost sight of that. The 1947 film wasn’t exactly slim at 110 minutes, but this Nightmare Alley is positively overstuffed at creosote-like 150.
If del Toro had kept the movie punchy, pulpy and to the point, he might have made it passable as an offbeat detour. Instead, he overburdens Nightmare Alley with portentous meaning, and the result becomes profoundly hollow. There is suspense, but it’s very didactic, literal kind of suspense; there’s no pleasure in seeing the obvious unfold, and it does so at such a stately place, you’d think it was a Frank Darabont movie.
Stan: You’ve got the smoother lies, but you run a racket, the same as me.
To be honest, I had similar problems with the obviousness of the twist in Shutter Island (also very apparent upfront); Nightmare Alley ends up revolving around its destination, rather than relishing the journey itself, and del Toro underlines every element accordingly, to the point of tedium. At the outset, Stan shows sympathy for the geek (“Pour soul”), because he will become the geek. He never drinks (yet, but oh boy, he will). Never do a spook show (so he will do one, then two). He’s haunted by key memories that attest to the essential corruption of his soul (we’re familiar with such flashes from other, similar fare). The set-up of his using the wood alcohol to poison Peter (and so peruse his book of secrets) is emblematic of del Toro’s inability to refrain from foregrounding every plot point. Only the reveal of Lilith’s duplicity isn’t over-signposted, but such femme-fatale form is only to be expected anyway, as part of noir tradition (her gloating, consumed with her own cleverness, while Stan still poses a physical threat is pretty dense on her part, it has to be said).
Pete: I got shuteye. When a man believes his own lies. Starts believing that he has the power, he’s got shuteye. Because now he believes it’s true. And people get hurt. Good, Godfearing people.
Del Toro’s expansive canvas is to no avail when everything is told through Stan’s prism; there aren’t really any characters but him, because Nightmare Alley relies on us knowing only what he knows. So Molly’s passive. Lilith’s ice cold and calculating (a Blanchette stock type, then). David Strathairn and Toni Collette make something of act “mentors” Pete and Zeena, but they’re the exception. You’d expect Dafoe’s carnival owner Clem to have some significance – he’s armed with a threatening overtone – but like most of the cast, he’s there because del Toro’s in a position to fill out his minor roles luxuriantly. Irresponsibly so, one might argue. Among them are Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, Jim Beaver and Tim Blake Nelson.
Because he has the extra time, there are elements del Toro conveys with due diligence, most notably the tricks of the trade (more effectively and convincingly than in the 1947 movie). There are dotted moments, such as Lilith’s initial challenge to Stan’s act, and the disorientation of being strapped down for a polygraph test, that hold sway. However, the added scrutiny del Toro applies to this grift makes the spirit-materialisation element seem only-more nuts as a result.
While Nightmare Alley features no overtly supernatural elements, it does attest to the validity of tarot; everyone, even a reluctant Stan, recognises the accuracy of Zeena’s readings. He draws Tower/ Lovers/ Hanged Man (reversed, which he flippantly proceeds to turn over). Notably, there’s lore in there too, with Zeena emphasising the choice he still has, and his assertion “You said yourself, there’s no such thing as bad cards”.
In common with del Toro’s big-budget studio efforts, it’s increasingly difficult to divine thematic resonance amid the immersion in genre for genre’s sake and production value for production value’s sake; Nightmare Alley lands as little more than pastiche, but mechanically so. This is not the kind where you feel the enthusiasm for the noir tradition. It goes through the motions every bit as much as Shutter Island – or Cape Fear – did. One might consider the lesson “People are desperate to tell you who they are, desperate to be seen” as a comment on our current social media culture, but it’s no more than an aside. Likewise, one might see the professional hoodwinking of an audience, feeding them what they think they want, to be the modus operandi of the last-gasping MSM. What’s that? It’s a commentary on Trump America? If that’s his intent, it’s simply a case of things coming around again, of one-size-fits-all weak sauce, as there’s no substantial difference in content to the previous version.
Anderson: I don’t know why he bothers with you. you’re cheap, pal. Just phoney.
There was a time when del Toro was thoroughly bogged down in development hell, as if he’d drawn his own dread spread, backing out of The Hobbit and unable to get either Hellboy III or At the Mountains of Madness made; his Wiki page on unproduced projects is as long as his bio. Since then, only The Shape of Water – for better or worse – has the handcrafted quality that initially saw his star rise. You left wondering why, of all the projects he could have made, he’d choose this one to consume three years of his life. Nightmare Alley is del Toro on autopilot, respectable but hollow, and the lack of response from audiences – critics gave it a pass – speaks volumes.
First published by Now in Full Color on 07/02/22.