Guillermo del Toro is about as pure a storyteller as there is in the world. In particular, he has cinema in his bones. So, whenever he opts to tackle something new, it’s an event. Even when it’s a remake, how can you not be curious about his take on Nightmare Alley? A del Toro noir? That sounds like catnip for all sorts of viewers. And yet, this film, while often compelling and beautiful looking, is missing the secret sauce that makes something truly special. You’ll see every twist and turn coming, whether you’ve seen the original or not, as if del Toro had no fully new take on film noir. The movie is still good, but sadly, it’s not great.
Nightmare Alley represents an epic take on film noir. For some, the bigger, the better. For others, it will seem like an odd marriage. Luckily, in del Toro’s hands, you’re never going to be left in the lurch. An exploration of the monster within us, it’s as bleak a record of humanity as he’s ever attempted, but full of style and his signature playfulness. The less you look at it as prestige and the more you look at it as true noir, the better it will work for you.
A remake of the 1947 film of the same name, itself adapted from the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, this is the story of the monster within. Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a dangerous drifter, one who catches on with a carnival run by Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe). Offered menial labor, he silently does it, though his eye is caught by one of the feature performers in Molly (Rooney Mara). Strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) warns him to keep his hands off, but he can’t resist. At the same time, he’s helping the mystic Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette) and her drunken husband Pete (David Straithairn). Their act is formed through Pete’s tricks of the trade, which easily convince others that they’re able to read minds. Stan, being observant and prone to manipulating others with the right phrase at times, studies up, planning to make it big on his own. An accident among the carny folk spurs him to move on, taking Molly along as his lover and partner.
Stan and Molly leave the carnival, heading to the big city with his new and ambitious act. They’re immediate successes, eventually catching the eye of psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Seeing Stan for what he is, she actually wants to team up, taking down in the process a client in the wealthy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). Molly wants no part of this, but seeing fortune in his future, Stan insists. Of course, getting in too deep is part of noir, so his fate is all but sealed there. Watching it all break down, however, is part of the perceived charm.
Bradley Cooper gets to be pretty despicable here, loving every moment of it. He’s embracing all of the dastardly deeds inherent in a con artist, really sinking his teeth into it all. Cooper and Cate Blanchett are the only ones with real meat on their bones, role-wise. Rooney Mara and Richard Jenkins have moments, as do Toni Collette and David Straithairn, to a lesser degree, but Blanchett and Cooper are the focus. The former has a very small role though, playing a femme fatale as if she was born to do it, while the latter is in almost every single scene. Supporting players include Clifton Collins Jr., Holt McCallany, Tim Blake Nelson, Mary Steenburgen, and many more. On the small disappointments here is how many members of the cast have so little to do, outside of the central players.
Co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro, along with co-writer Kim Morgan, crafts a new take on Nightmare Alley. Given the story they’re telling, the project does come off as bloated feeling. The script is fine, and del Toro’s direction is impeccable, but the pacing is rough. Now, you feel every bit of the two and a half hour running time, though it’s never boring, which is an unusual issue. Luckily, cinematographer Dan Laustsen and composer Nathan Johnson are doing great work, so the tech aspects are wonderful as well. It all just comes off as too pudgy a package, given the material and story being told.
Oscar-wise, Nightmare Alley certainly has the potential to be a party crasher. I speculated a bit here last week about its awards potential, but it’s hard to pin down exactly how this one will do. Voters could just as easily go for it across the board as make it purely a technical category player. Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper have shots to be nominated for their performances, but a lot remains to be seen here.
Nightmare Alley will delight del Toro fans, that’s for sure. The ingredients for one of his films are all here. In fact, it’s very much the sort of thing you’d expect him to downright ace. A del Toro fan will likely adore his taking on of noir, but from more of a distance, you’ll wish there was a little bit more here. Again, it’s a good movie, but greatness does elude its grasp.