“Nightmare Alley,” directed by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, is a remake from the 1947 film of the same name starring Tyrone Power, both based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The latest version, starring Bradley Cooper as the huckster carny Stanton Carlisle whose need for greed takes him down dangerous paths of love and lust, is almost unmemorable story if it weren’t for del Toro’s stylized vision.
It’s an all-star cast lead by Cooper as his character stumbles into the home of Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) who’s been to this carnival scene many times before. Carlisle has a sordid past, but is welcomed by Zeena and her con-artist/magician hubby Pete (David Strathairn) as they take Carlisle under their wing, Zeena a little more tightly than is appropriate. Learning, improving, and honing the tricks of the trade of mentalism, he falls in love with the talented Molly (Rooney Mara). The pair are convinced there are bigger targets to be had and run off to this better life. But greed smothers all other aspects of Carlisle’s life as he swindles a wealthy, powerful and “innocent” man named Ezra (Richard Jenkins).
The web del Toro weaves is a complicated one as it plummets into the abyss of greed and characters who are moralistically bankrupt. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the intelligent, intuitive, and manipulative psychologist is the epitome of this type of character, matching Carlisle blow for blow. Unfortunately, it takes much too long to get to these seedy yet high profile and vibrant characters as the film slogs along back at the carnival, spinning its wheels as it readies itself to take off to the meat of the story.
Visually, however, del Toro keeps us entertained even when the story flounders. He takes us back in time to an era none of us have experienced and to places we are unfamiliar. Amplifying colors and palates he introduces us to this world of despicable behavior, some overt, some hidden, and places his characters in a variety of situations. The burden, however, lies with Cooper to give us a man who is broken and defies his fate. We just never hate him enough or care for him enough to feel that we have stakes in his game of life. Blanchett, on the other hand, is chillingly captivating, appearing to bask in this character’s charade, but she arrives on the scene a little too late.
Fine performances from an almost unrecognizable Jenkins as a man with a deplorable past seeking forgiveness finds a way to be the story we really want to know. And there are several subplots and ancillary characters that are introduced and then taken away making them just that, ancillary.
Guillermo del Toro’s vision in storytelling is unparalleled, but he stumbles in pushing his narrative and allowing his main character to be who really is; a sociopathic narcissist. While the all-star cast shines, the story dampens them as it focuses on being artistically beautiful and not what matters—telling the story and keeping the pace.