Guillermo del Toro has been making geek shows geared to movie geeks for years. In Nightmare Alley, based on a 1946 novel and the picture that followed it a year later, he gorgeously opens up his stylistic bag of tricks to give us a film noir where the scariest creatures are of the human sort. Geek shows take on a different meaning as the traveling carnivals where we spend the first act features one. That’s where spectators with jaws agape watch a drug addled performer (“geeks” in the show’s vocabulary) bite the heads off of chickens. All for the price of a quarter or two!
We meet Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in 1939 as he happens upon the larger road show filled with psychics, strongmen, and beautiful ladies with electrical currents running through them. He’s destitute and jobless and picks up menial duties from Clem (Willem Dafoe), who runs the demented circus. Stan is an audacious fellow who’s not fearful of romancing good-natured performer Molly (Rooney Mara) or picking up mentalist tips from the alcoholic Pete (David Strathairn) or his clairvoyant (with help from cue cards) wife Zeena (Toni Collette). He occasionally takes pity on the resident geek (Paul Anderson) but it’s clear Stan is mostly looking out for himself. An opening flashback sequence shows a strained relationship with his deceased father who was also a fan of the drink. While dad, mentor Pete, and that poor chicken feeder suffer from substance abuse, Stan’s vices are hubris and power.
The opening scenes of Alley explore this fascinating world with the exquisite production design, cinematography, and impeccable lighting that we would anticipate from its maker. This is constantly a visually striking experience. When we flash forward two years later, Stan has used the teachings of his colleagues to move up to the big city (Buffalo) and deem himself a psychic. With Molly as his assistant and companion, his dinner theater act attracts the attention of the city’s elite. Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist, tries to unmask Stan’s schemes during such a performance. It only serves to fool more of the attendees. The two decide to team up and swindle movers and shakers like a judge (Peter MacNeill) mourning a son and his devastated wife (Mary Steenburgen). For a price, Stan will convince them that their loved one is with them in spirit. The doctor provides the backstory from such grieving former patients.
Stan and Ritter also engage in therapeutic sessions that occasionally crackle with intensity. The two actors are up to the task with Blanchett picture perfect as the femme fatale and Cooper’s aw shucks Southern drawl cloaking his wild ambitions. Mara’s Molly gets lost in the shuffle as Stan’s pining is not just for a quick buck, but for the bad doc as well.
The ladder climbing of his consultations leads to Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) and, at last, Stan may have bitten off more of an assignment than he can chew. Not a typical crime boss type of figure, the calm but firm Grindle looks for otherworldly messages from a former love. If Stan doesn’t produce, he may lose more than the fee.
Nightmare Alley is worth seeing for its look alone. Mr. del Toro is known for his onscreen creatures (from Cronos to Pan’s Labyrinth to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water). We don’t see those types in his latest, but there’s monsters around and Stan is among them. Their habits are often just as frightening. When Dafoe’s Clem explains how the geeks are hired, it’s a tad hair raising.
Not all is as pleasing as the aesthetics. del Toro is clearly having a blast playing in the noir sandbox. So much so that he doesn’t seem to realize that these genre excursions should be lean and mean in their running time. Alley plods along for 150 minutes. Plenty of the characters are mean though it’s not so lean in execution. There are sequences that land effectively after the carnivorous first act but plenty that don’t match their potency. On the plus side, it’s got a humdinger of an ending with its darkly appealing beginnings and that makes it worth the price of admission.
*** (out of four)