Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Prod: Bradley Cooper, J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro, T.K. Knowles, John O’Grady
Scr: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan
Pho: Dan Laustsen
Guillermo del Toro’s new film Nightmare Alley is for mature audiences only, as it deals in human darkness. It’s downbeat, definitely not in the escapist mood so many of us seem to want in our movies these days. However, it’s a gem.
Del Toro is a director whose new work I race to go see. His mythic imagination and his consummate skill behind the camera leads to dependable, memorable results. Such is the case of his newest effort, a perfectly pitched film noir packed with acting talent, a dark parable about overreaching ambition, power, cruelty, and delusion.
The film is descended from the 1946 noir novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. It also stands in the shadow of a riveting 1947 film adaptation by Edmund Goulding, starring Tyrone Power, which lost its punch at the end as it strove to avoid a downbeat ending. Del Toro doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the original story; he restores its bitter conclusion.
The story is set in America on the eve of World War II. In a refreshing touch, everyone smokes. All the time. In this universe, it’s either raining or snowing. Vagabond criminal Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), on the run from a mysterious and sadistic past, joins a seedy traveling carnival. There he finds other outcasts from society, including Willem Dafoe as “outside talker” Clem and Ron Perlman as Bruno, the strongman and carny boss. The casting is impeccable, and del Toro puts A-list actors into even the seemingly smallest parts (Mary Steenburgen as a grieving mother, Richard Jenkins as a ferociously twisted tycoon), giving the film a weight it might otherwise have lacked.
Carlisle is manipulative and ambitious. He finds out about a fake mentalist act crafted by Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her washed-up, drunken partner Pete (David Strathairn), and schemes to run it himself with his paramour, the young and innocent “Electrical Girl Molly (Rooney Mara). Soon, the two are entertaining high society and headlining fancy clubs
It’s a modern version of the Rake’s Progress, the upward arc and downward collapse of a wayward man. Stanton gets greedy, planning on a “spook show” (fake spiritualism) to make even more money off his rich clientele. He soon runs afoul of a cold, calculating femme fatale, the shady psychotherapist Lilith Ritter (the marvelous icy Cate Blanchett)
It’s also the classic noir plot – conniving woman leads man to his doom – and save for the color photography, it could be a film from the 1940s (save for a savage moment with a live chicken). In fact, de Toro and his cinematographer Dan Laustsen prepared a special black-and-white cut of the film for re-release, a tribute to the pre-color aesthetic.
The film noir is processed through del Toro’s imagination and expands into something closer to a morality play, much as it processed Hammer Studios-type horror into the hallucinatory trippiness of Crimson Peak, and turned the Creature from the Black Lagoon into a romantic hero in The Shape of Water.
“Is he man or beast?” is the question posed at the start of the show, and in Nightmare Alley, del Toro comes down firmly in favor of the latter. It’s not for everyone, but will richly reward those unafraid of the dark.