Considering the current state of the world, it may not seem like the ideal time to bring the dark story of “Nightmare Alley,” director Guillermo del Toro‘s adaptation of the 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel, to audiences searching for an escape. The sleazy, shadowy world of carnival grifters is haunting, grim, and certainly doesn’t offer a feel-good experience. But if you are seeking a modern noir thriller that’s executed in a near-perfect fashion, here is where you’ll find it.
Charismatic Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds himself down on his luck. Searching for work, he stumbles upon a second-rate carnival and is welcomed by Clem (Willem Dafoe) as part of the crew. He becomes fascinated with clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her has-been mentalist partner Pete (David Strathairn), learning their tricks of deception. With his newly acquired insider secrets and a flair for showbiz, Stanton runs away with performer Molly (Rooney Mara), taking their mentalist act to the deep-pocketed elites in the city.
Stanton becomes a master manipulator and excels at telling his marks what they want to hear, often claiming to speak with dead loved ones. With the aid of a mysterious psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) feeding him insider information, Stanton devises a dangerous “spook show” grift that will result in a massive payday from wealthy tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). Despite dire warnings, the man decides to proceed.
It’s a terrific story of crime and betrayal, and Del Toro has crafted a modern noir thriller that hits all the high notes. The material is the perfect fit for the director, and he creates a fully realized, nightmarish world that begins with one filled with unsavory carny barkers and con artists, and ends with the tantalizing glamour of high society. It’s a story of wealth and power and seduction, a cautionary tale of a man so consumed and controlled by having it all that he never realizes his greatest weakness is his own ego. Of course, his downfall is inevitable.
Clocking in at 150 minutes, the film takes its time setting up the story, yet it never feels overly long. There’s a sense of doom and dread that hangs over the entire film, from Dan Laustsen‘s gorgeous cinematography to Nathan Johnson‘s haunting original score.
The performances are fantastic, from the major roles (which are incredibly well cast) to the smaller supporting turns (including Mary Steenburgen, Ron Perlman, and Tim Blake Nelson). The production design is impeccable too, aided by equally strong hair, makeup, and costumes.
The script elevates the idea of uncontrolled ambition, being both lost in and enchanted by the American ideals of power and strength and money and fame, even as one man sells his soul to reach the top.
Every element feels flawless on its own, but Del Toro brings them all together to craft a film of near perfection. This type of magic is what happens when the material fits the director.
“Nightmare Alley” is a fully realized nightmarish world filled with unique characters and a fascinating story. Provocative and macabre, this psychological thriller is unforgettable. It’s also one of my favorite films of the year.