There’s something beautiful, admirable, yet frustrating about Guillermo Del Toro’s recent works. With films like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy films, he has created some of the most horrifying yet endearing images in the fantasy genre. Truly, he’s a filmmaker who earns the title of “visionary.” But with Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water, both films I like very much, I sensed a pattern — a lack of flair and unpredictability in the storytelling, despite being reliably beautiful in its visuals.
Nightmare Alley continues this trend. It is a gorgeous-looking film from start to finish, with Del Toro the filmmaker firing on all cylinders in the technical departments. That being said, Del Toro the storyteller seems once again restrained and tamed by a script that takes too long to escalate and gain momentum. The logline emphasizes our ambitious young carny Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) hooking up with female psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), but this plot point isn’t introduced until the midpoint of the film, where the story jumps ahead by two years. Being slow-burn is one thing, but being slow while the audience is ahead of the script, waiting for it to pick up the pace, is another.
How Del Toro directs a scene and sets up anticipation of character remains impeccable. The first ten minutes of Nightmare Alley is an efficient establishment of our protagonist Stan and what skeletons he may be hiding in his closet. To have him not speak in the beginning is another smart decision that sets the tone. We’re with him on a bus, where to isn’t the point; he only gets off because he’s at the end of the line. Soon enough, he stumbles into a twisted “geek show” run by a charming showrunner named Clem (Willem Dafoe), whose devilish demeanor brings back memories of Joel Grey’s Oscar-winning performance as the MC in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret.
Stan then immerses himself into a cast of carnival characters, growing particularly close to fortune teller Zeena (Toni Collette), whose husband Pete (David Strathairn) was once a successful mentalist but has lost himself to tragedy and drink. Though the script isn’t convincing as to why Zeena would show romantic interest in Stan so quickly so soon, it is her show of “reading minds” and “communing with the dead” that Stan finds work. On stage, Zeena will capture the imagination of the audience. Under the stage is Stan, helping Pete feed notes through a mirror for Zeena to read. It’s his first exposure to how performance and con are two sides of the same coin.
But it’s not a pleasant lifestyle, and for Stan, it’s only temporary until he gets his feet back up to start a new career and make a name for himself. During his time at the carnival, he falls for Molly (Rooney Mara), a young performer living a happy, sheltered life with her fellow performers, who she sees as a chosen family. For Stan, she embodies his need for a new life of glamour. She’s his future partner, both in work and in life, so much so that he asks her to leave the carnival with him and start a new career in the big city.
All of this is found in the first act of Nightmare Alley, which completely rests on Cooper’s ability to bounce off of all the other actors in the cast. Though everyone is in the mood to play, the film occasionally struggles to balance its story between being obvious foreshadowing and pretty set dressing. The conversations with Dafoe and Strathairn are particularly strong; both men inadvertently guide Stan down his dark path taking his lies too far. Dafoe gets a fantastic monologue and thesis that shapes Del Toro’s awful human beings throughout Nightmare Alley; that there are only two types of people, the predator and the prey. In the carnival, there is the showrunner, the performer, and the audience. What kind of man (or beast) would Stan want to be?
These are the thematic ideas that give Nightmare Alley an admirable amount of depth. If only the script had more surprises in store, or if it opened its Pandora’s box sooner. With Pete warning Stan about the dangers of performing a “spook show,” you already know what Stan is going to do, and sadly, you already know what his downfall is going to be. The issue isn’t the quality. Without a doubt, Del Toro directs every shot and scene with an eye for darkness and romanticism. The issue lies in our awareness as an audience on what will happen. Much of the film’s first half is waiting. We’re waiting for Stan to do something unexpected. We’re waiting for things to go wrong. Also, frankly, we’re waiting for Blanchett to appear. Two of the film’s most exciting moments involve Blanchett’s Lilith challenging Cooper’s Stan like a mind game of chess.
The lack of urgency and excessive runtime certainly makes much of Nightmare Alley a hollow experience, forcing the film to rely on just technical craftsmanship to stay together. For some viewers, that will be enough.
Once we get to the third act, the plot finally escalates to a heart-pounding finale, and it’s some of the best and most consistent Del Toro has offered. It’s unmistakably an achievement in directing, cinematography, and editing, especially since this time, the monsters and spirits are missing. Once we arrive at the last five minutes of the film, particularly the last shot, you will certainly be reminded why Del Toro is one of the most exciting filmmakers we have today. I just so wish more of the film revels in that energy. I don’t recall saying “Oh shit” until the third act. It’s not a problem per se, but it makes me think fondly back to older Del Toro films, where they were unafraid to play their cards in the first act and show the audience that they’re not fucking around.
I loved looking at Nightmare Alley from start to finish. Del Toro’s sense of time and place still shines in every scene, whether it’s in the rundown carnival, Dr. Lilith Ritter’s office, or even the massive mansion run by a wealthy but mentally unstable businessman (Richard Jenkins in a small role). Cinematographer Dan Laustsen continues to bring these locations to life for his sense of color and camera placement.
But the story and its attitude on the characters remains a mystery. Cooper tries his very best in the lead role, and even though he has moments of brilliance, the script doesn’t give his character enough for him to truly stand out or to be dissected. Much of what happens to him (and a few other minor characters) is predictable from the start. It’s a film that feels remarkably safe, and yet, if you look at all the films that have been released this year, there is still no film like Nightmare Alley. Here’s hoping that a studio out there can give Guillermo del Toro even more freedom to go unhinged and let loose. He is a filmmaker who is at his best when he is at his weirdest.
Searchlight Pictures will release Nightmare Alley only in theaters on December 17.