By Justin Stewart
Dir. Guillermo del Toro, U.S., Searchlight Pictures
In interviews, Guillermo del Toro has said that his adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel marks a departure from his previous films in that it’s a “straight” story that contains “no supernatural elements.” And yet the story’s setting in the world of fantastical carnival acts and deceptive mentalists nevertheless allows the filmmaker a safe space to indulge the same self-consciously "creepy" impulses and default style of steampunk-adjacent visuals and slimy-elaborate props that date back to the short films he made prior to Cronos (1993). Not a frame in his Nightmare Alley could be mistaken for the straight, “real” world. This is, of course, not to fault del Toro for having a recognizable style, just to note that any departure from supernaturalism is merely a technicality of the source plot details, and there is never any doubt that this is the work of the same person who made imaginative novelties like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017). One’s taste for del Toro—for all the complex ticking gadgets, dripping ceilings, jarred fetuses, dark-smudgy browns and blues offset by flashes of gold, and for the cartoonishly innocent or bad heroes and villains—will precisely determine their enjoyment of the new film.
An air of folly pervades this endeavor, in part because the sublimely cynical, brutish source novel was already adequately adapted in 1947 by director Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, Dark Victory) and starred Tyrone Power. Giddily dark and blasphemous for its time, the 1947 version is filthy with top-shelf character actor performances and marred mostly by a tacked-on Hollywood ending. Del Toro has made clear that his 2021 model—co-written by screenwriter and film critic Kim Morgan—is an adaptation of the novel (first gifted to him by routine collaborator Ron Perlman, who plays a strongman here) rather than Goulding’s film, but it’s still fair play to note that it adds 40 minutes and untold production cost bloat to the previous runtime with no value added beyond extra gore. The older film is often classified as a noir (even though it’s lacking some of the tropes and visual signifiers of that pseudo-genre), which del Toro has taken as an excuse to stuff his version with constant cigarette smoking and monsoon-like rainfall in his usual literal and immoderate fashion.
Power was in his early thirties when he appeared in the original film. In the novel, protagonist Stanton “Stan” Carlisle is only 21 when we first meet him as an amateur magician and general assistant to the carnies in a “Ten-in-One” troupe traveling around Anywhere, USA. Bradley Cooper, now playing Stan, is in his mid-forties, and while I don’t generally get hung up on piddling suspension of disbelief hurdles (it’s all pretend), he is too old, and it is awkward in the opening sections to see him as a wide-eyed whipper-snapper taken under the mothering wing of the carnival show people and freaks. Perhaps to account for the discrepancy, this Stan is given a heavier backstory in a sequence shot by regular del Toro DP Dan Laustsen like something out of Days of Heaven or Wyeth’s Christina’s World, making his carny stint more of a fresh start than an entry-level career beginner. (As face-smoothing Irishman effects are liberally applied later in the film, it’s a little surprising they were not employed more upfront to youth-ify Cooper.)
Stan’s introduction to this world is a sighting of the carnival’s resident “geek,” billed as an exotic, feral missing-link that is in fact just a hairy, unbathed vagrant whom show owner Clem has addicted to a nightly bottle of opium-laced liquor given in exchange for biting the heads off of chickens to the enthralled horror of paying onlookers. Willem Dafoe, likably evil in oleaginous Bobby Peru mode, is wonderful as Clem, who takes Stan (and us) behind the scenes, where there are a bunch of sickly little creatures floating in jars of amber straight out of The Devil’s Backbone (2001). Stan asks Clem how a man could fall so low, and the specter of the geek haunts him throughout, as do the tarot card readings of Zeena (Toni Collette), the house telepath whose rousing oracle act is a mix of trickery—aided by her alcoholic husband/partner Pete (David Strathairn)—and genuine human empathy. Just as the Shakespearean actor Ian Keith as Pete was a highlight of the 1947 film, Straitharn is sweetly touching here as the gifted showman gone to seed. Pete’s uselessness in the sack turns Zeena’s eyes to Stan (again Cooper’s age distracts, as it is supposed to play like cougarish grooming even though Collette and Cooper are roughly the same age) and a bathtub hand-job is an unwelcome reminder of the director’s water fetish, crystallized in his 2017 Best Picture winner.
After Stan’s negligence results in a carnival family tragedy, the story jumps ahead two years to Chicago, with Stan having absorbed all of Pete and Zeena’s trade tricks and gone into business as a spiritualist, conning the city’s wealthy elite along with romantic partner Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act back with the Ten-in-One was as the electricity-absorbing Electra. Stan’s ability to rook the emotionally needy and narcissistic rich is supercharged when he joins forces with unscrupulous psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), whose utter lack of ethics and access to clients’ (secretly recorded) innermost fears/desires complement Stan’s skill set for dead-raising “spook” shows. Gresham—a troubled soul who battled mental illness and alcoholism (and killed himself at age 53)—transferred his own negative experiences with and opinions on psychologists into Dr. Ritter, one of the most cravenly evil characters in literature. In the 1947 film, Helen Walker’s baby-faced superficial sweetness as Ritter provided an extra note of malevolence, but something is off about Blanchett’s mannered swanning and drawn-out line readings, as if the star is overcompensating for being a mere supporting actor here. Her scenes also take place in only a couple of locations (one her absurdly lavish Art Deco office), as if shot over a weekend, and she may have felt she had to really make those days count. Del Toro and Laustsen do her no favors in a series of off-putting close-ups in which she looks even more artificial than her elven Lady Galadriel. Carol fans will, however, be happy just to see Blanchett briefly reunite with Mara.
At 150 minutes, del Toro and Morgan’s treatment omits little from the novel, and yet it somehow still feels rushed in the back half, with Stan’s inevitable downfall unspooling at 2x speed and an onset of alcoholism that seems to arrive out of nowhere. When Stan turns violent on a client, what was little more than a gentle bop in the 1947 film is here a fatal tooth-spraying beatdown followed by a gratuitous vehicular murder. A loud murder-suicide late in the film feels planted to startle awake snoozing viewers. To its credit, this Nightmare ends at the objectively correct moment; Cooper holds his final cry a few showy beats more than necessary, but the message—that we are all potentially one catastrophe (or drink) away from geekdom—still resonates.
Partly because Darryl F. Zanuck disliked it and put scant effort into promoting it, the 1947 film was not a success. At the time of writing, Nightmare Alley’s opening weekend is halfway over, and the Box Office Mojos of the world are reporting its failure to reap even 1% of the profits of the latest Marvel tentpole (to wit, Spider-Man: No Way Home). This on a weekend during which the COVID-19 pandemic has surged anew, slicing into the potential audience for this kind of so-called adult fare. Like Zeena’s Hanging Man tarot, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has loomed over the project and cursed it twice, having shut down production for six months in 2020. In the midst of a never-ending public health crisis, it’s difficult not to sense another harbinger of doom for the cinema-going experience for any films not targeted at those under thirty and adapted from established, preferably comic book, IP. Though I hope it doesn’t, there could come a time very soon when traveling to a brick-and-mortar cinema and watching even passably complex or troubling films told with distinct auteurist flair surrounded by fellow humans will be only a blurry memory. In that dark future, any of the above petty quibbles would be forgotten, and even a film this middling would seem a miracle.