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Guillermo del Toro Brings Phantasmagoria to Noir in Nightmare Alley

Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

It was only in the week before I was scheduled to see Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley that I first turned my attention to Edmund Golding’s 1947 original Nightmare Alley adaptation. I was blown away to see a studio film of the era so cynical and dark. I’ll sheepishly admit to having only a faint awareness of star Tyrone Power – I think I’d only seen one of his westerns and his take on Zorro – but I was absolutely blown away by his work. His performance is a pillar of masculine egotism, a master of mansplaining decades before such a term would exist. His cynical rise and well earned fall mark the arc of a brilliantly defined character. Throw in a deliciously ambiguous horror adjacent tone and it’s easy to see what drew beloved horror auteur Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) to the story.

This story, like all noirs, requires a leading man with some range: the charmer and the scoundrel all in one, a man you can believe might just break bad when given the right temptation. Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born, American Sniper) – by all accounts a lovely fellow in real life – is most at home in roles where he can radiate a sort of internalized sleaze. A trait equally well deployed by Paul Thomas Anderson in this year’s Licorice Pizza, there’s something unctuous just beneath the surface of his conventional appeal. Here he plays Stanton Carlisle, a ne’er-do-well who ends up in the employ of a carnival where he fast shows a knack for mentalism. It’s not long before he sees this skill set as an opportunity to make it big in the city. Cooper makes the role sing – it’s not a likable performance, but it is a magnetic one. It’s easy to understand how a carnival, or later dinner theater, attendee would be spellbound by the charismatic Carlisle, and why one might buy into his soothsaying.

Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

If one thing best defines del Toro’s aesthetic, it is his commitment to elaborate production design. Each of his films exists in a lush practical universe and Nightmare Alley is no exception to the rule. The carnival where Stanton Carlisle learns his conman trade is, while perhaps a bit more epic than a rural carnival in the depression could ever be, emanates menace through a delightfully macabre color palette. It’s beautiful and ominous in a way that starkly informs the mood of each scene with lush cinematography. Each background detail from jarred freakshow maladies to costuming on extras exudes the sort of perfectionist touch that del Toro brings to his worlds.

Del Toro wisely fills out the cast with a who’s who list of elite leading caliber actors: Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, Antichrist) as a carnie ringleader, David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck, The Bourne Ultimatum) as Stanton’s mentalist mentor, Rooney Mara (Carol, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as Stanton’s ingenue love interest, Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, The Shape of Water) as an eccentric, dangerous mark, and Toni Collette (Hereditary, Knives Out) as a carnival fortune teller. The screenplay is structured such that each is given a few moments to take the reins from Cooper’s full throated lead performance. Even the film’s peripheral parts are filled by splendid character actors such as Ron Perlman (Pacific Rim, FX’s Sons of Anarchy) and the delightfully gruff Holt McCallany (Netflix’s Mindhunter, FX’s Lights Out). The caliber of acting on display here is universally strong and each performances seems perfectly attuned to what del Toro is attempting to achieve. Compare with, say, House of Gucci which appears to have 6 actors in 6 different films all sharing the screen. Del Toro has always been wonderful at achieving this sort of unity of purpose in his performers, and that skill has never been better deployed than here.

Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

All noirs rise and fall on the strength of their femmes fatales. Here, del Toro has cast one for the ages. The ever wonderful Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Blue Jasmine) hits just the right slightly hammy gear: part camp and part seductress, part victim and part villain. An already vibrant film shifts into a new gear whenever she is on screen, enhanced by her electric chemistry with Cooper. A wonderful lead performer, Blanchett has had a wonderful year as a supporting player. Her work here and as a cynical, domineering morning show host in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up [Don’t Look Up (Audio Review)] make for a wonderful showpiece of her incredible range. It feels as though Blanchett knows exactly where to lean into the film’s genre trappings for the greatest impact

A note on the ending [spoilers in this paragraph] – I appreciate that del Toro didn’t pull his punch. Golding’s original adaptation of the material comes just to the edge of giving Stanton Carlisle the comeuppance he deserves but then pulls its punch at the very last minute with an unearned happy ending. Del Toro, working in a very different era in film, lays out the thematic roadmap for Carlisle’s inevitable decline from the film’s very first moments. The stark violence and more stifling ambience of del Toro’s film make Carlisle’s destined fall into a life of fresh chicken in a geek pit a blackly comedic outcome. Cooper’s panicked acceptance of his inevitable end marks one of the year’s best bits of acting.

Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

While it’s less overtly horror and science fiction based than del Toro’s other work, Nightmare Alley is one of the year’s best films and a showpiece for everything del Toro does so well as a director. This year has brought me the great joy of seeing some of my favorite directors successfully put their stamp on genres adjacent to their usual output as here or with Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho [Last Night in Soho (Audio Review)] or even Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. I can only hope Nightmare Alley is not entirely consumed in the wake of Spider-Man: No Way Home and finds a place with audiences, and awards voters, through the holidays.

Nightmare Alley is in theaters nationwide on December 17