NIGHTMARE ALLEY, A Rare Misstep for Guillermo del Toro

A grifter and his mark (and vice versa).

With Best Picture and Best Picture Academy Awards for The Shape of Water four years ago, Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), the 57-year-old Mexico-born, U.S.-based filmmaker found personal and professional vindication that eluded him for the better part of two decades. Until The Shape of Water, Del Toro’s track record includes a disproportionate mix of realized and unrealized projects (including a failed adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s cult classic, At the Mountains of Madness). The Shape of Water’s commercial and critical success, however, finally gave del Toro the singular opportunity to bring William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 bleakly nihilistic roman noir (and one of del Toro’s favorite works of 20th-century fiction), Nightmare Alley, to Technicolor or more specifically, Technicolor-adjacent, life.

The dramatically inert, if sumptuously and opulently produced, result qualifies as nothing less than a disappointment, an overlong, over-indulgent, self-indulgent adaptation paced with the solemnity and deliberateness of a funeral march, a slow, limp crawl toward what should have been a devastating, wrenching denouement, but instead leaves nothing more than a superficial mark, the inevitable, preordained, foreordained (and repeatedly foreshadowed) end for an underwritten central character defined by greed, ambition, and not much else. There’s no grand tragedy here to move audiences to empathy or identification with the central character, just a shoulder-shrouding acknowledgement that consequences follow misdeeds, the past is never the past (you carry it with you always), and anyone, regardless of how high they’ve risen, can fall into a literal and figurative pit of despair.

Nightmare Alley, however, opens promisingly enough as Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), Gresham and del Toro’s protagonist, walks away from a burning farmhouse, leaving a life he never wanted, behind. Like so many protagonists of early to mid-20th-century fiction, Carlisle believes in the possibility of self-invention. He’s both running away from a misspent life possibly filled with violence to another, better one where even if he keeps his name and face, he change everything else about himself, including his social status. Considering he’s practically penniless, there’s really no place but to go or rather crawl up the broken ladder of success (Great Depression Edition).

Carlisle doesn’t run off to join a circus, but the next-worst thing, a carnival. Almost immediately, however, Carlisle learns that poverty and homelessness aren’t the worst things the world can offer. For men addicted to alcohol or drugs, there’s one step further down they can go: A geek in a sideshow carnival. Every carnival, we soon learn, has its own geek, a man so debased, so filled with self-hatred and addicted to the oblivion only alcohol can provide, that trading what’s left of his dignity in exchange for a steady supply of alcohol. In return, the geek, emerging from a literal pit in the ground, bites off the heads of chickens for the shock and entertainment of paying audiences. Never one to shy away from the onscreen depiction of violence, del Toro shows the audience on the other side of the digital screen (i.e., us) the geek at work.

Once is all we need, a fact del Toro implicitly acknowledges by keeping additional scenes of the geek at work mercifully offscreen. For Carlisle, the geek functions as a red-light warning of a life no reasonable man could possibly want, but a life that could possibly befall anyone under the right (or rather wrong) circumstances. While the geek continues to fascinate Carlisle, likely as an object of pity, not sympathy or compassion, Carlisle begins putting a vaguely sketched in plan into motion, slipping into a desultory affair with a medium, Zeena (Toni Collette), and befriending Zeena’s alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), a mentalist of fading repute whose once popular act Carlisle imagines he can revive with himself as Pete’s replacement.

Unsurprisingly for a filmmaker long fascinated, even obsessed with the outer limits of human behavior, grotesques in appearance and conduct, del Toro lingers (and lingers) on the carnival scenes, ultimately to depressingly stultifying effect. Momentum, along with pacing, doesn’t pick up again until Nightmare Alley flashes forward several years as Carlisle and his ex-carnie wife, Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), headline a popular nightclub act in the proverbial big city. Carlisle’s tragic flaw, the hubris evident the moment he lays his eyes on Pete’s notebook, a notebook filled with information about Pete’s act, all but crystallizes in the form of Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist to the rich and powerful and not incidentally, the classic femme fatale an overconfident Carlisle believes he can manipulate and control.

The remainder of Nightmare Alley turns on Carlisle’s ill-judged decision to convert his mentalist act to a so-called “spook show,” grifting and conning willing marks by convincing them he can communicate with the dead. With Ritter’s semi-reluctant help, Carlisle’s zeroes in on a reclusive, wealthy industrialist, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), eager to reach a long-lost, long-dead love for a mix of contradictory reasons, among them a suffocating guilt that’s expressed itself in potentially terrifying ways. Rather than run the other way, Carlisle, uncritically confident in his abilities to control any circumstance or situation, plunges headfirst into the biggest con of his relatively short career. As expected (i.e., noir being noir and all), things go sideways, leaving Carlisle facing the consequences of supremely selfish, short-sighted choices.

In adapting Gresham’s novel, del Toro made the deliberate choice to leave out Carlisle’s career as a religious huckster separating true believers from their hard-earned money in exchange for delivering evidence of a fantastical afterlife to them. Religious hucksterism remains as relevant today as it did almost a century ago. It’s part of the American way of life, but apparently del Toro felt it distracted from the American story del Toro and his screenwriting partner, Kim Morgan, wanted to tell of Carlisle’s predictable rise and fall. It certainly feels like a missed opportunity (because it is), especially in a film where so much of Nightmare Alley’s bloated 150-minute-running time feels repetitive, non-essential, and/or over-emphasized (because so much is as well).

Nightmare Alley opens theatrically on Friday, December 17th.

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Writer/editor for hire. Member: SFFCC, OFCS.

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