director: guillermo del toro (the shape of water, pans labyrinth)
starring: bradley cooper, cate blanchett, rooney mara, and willem dafoe
REVIEWER: lyall carter
An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to first-century Christians in Rome, he famously writes that ‘the wages of sin is death.’ Many of the great directors of cinema have explored this theme, the destructive depravity that humanity can stoop to and its consequences, from Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense-filled thrillers to Martin Scorsese's gritty crime dramas. Now Guillermo Del Toro steps into that tradition in his first feature since his Oscar-winning hit The Shape of Water. This is a Del Toro we’ve rarely seen before. While there are no fantastical monsters in sight, Del Toro masterfully explores the monster lurking within all of us in an atmospheric, hauntingly beautiful, and gorgeous looking film with one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory. A must-watch.
When charismatic but down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle endears himself to clairvoyant Zeena and her has-been mentalist husband Pete at a traveling carnival, he crafts a golden ticket to success, using this newly acquired knowledge to grift the wealthy elite of 1940s New York society. With the virtuous Molly loyally by his side, Stanton plots to con a dangerous tycoon with the aid of a mysterious psychiatrist who might be his most formidable opponent yet.
For Guillermo Del Toro monsters of the fantastical kind, usually portrayed by the lithe Doug Jones, are what he does best. So it’s to his credit that he doesn’t rely on them in Nightmare Alley, but broadens his storytelling repertoire to explore a story with merely human characters. That's not to say that Del Toro has abandoned frightening allegorical, fantasy tales for our time. Not at all. Nightmare Alley is a taunt, paranoid noir with slashes of physiological thriller thrown in for good, gritty measure.
Narratively Nightmare Alley is a slow burn for a Del Toro film and isn’t his most obvious and direct work in that it requires more of the audience and will have you thinking about it long after the credits roll. The first two acts of the film don’t quite have the same energy or drive as Hellboy or The Shape of Water. But a little patience is required as these first two acts, with all of their exposition and character development, build the story up to a frenzied and bloodied crescendo of a payoff in the final act that is more than worth the wait.
And in those first two carefully crafted acts we are enveloped into the realms of the carnival and the high, flying world of New York society. Through these two, perfectly realized worlds we begin to see the flaws in Bradley Cooper’s Stanton and how little by little his mistakes lead him into a dangerous and deadly situation.
As you’d expect from a Del Toro film the production design is immaculate and hauntingly beautiful. The circus carnival alone has so much intimate detail that you can’t drink all of it in. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is gorgeous and haunting while Nathan Johnson’s score helps to ratchet up the tension.
Many have sung the praises of Cooper’s performance and it is one of his best in recent memory. He wonderfully captures the early tenderness of Stanton and perfectly conveys each step he takes into further depravity. But this is a proper ensemble film from Rooney Mara to Cate Blanchett and David Strathairn and all the other character actors in between; it's one of the best ensemble cast in recent memory.
While there are no fantastical monsters in sight, Del Toro masterfully explores the monster lurking within all of us in an atmospheric, hauntingly beautiful, and gorgeous looking film with one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory. A must-watch.