Guillermo del Toro adds his own Gothic sensibility to this thrilling new version of an old film noir.
After winning the Best Picture Oscar in 2017 for The Shape of Water, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro continues to challenge himself. Turning aside from his customary monster or supernatural-themed stories, he’s now made a crime film, a film noir as people often call it, Nightmare Alley. Hollywood already released a picture with that title back in 1947, starring Tyrone Power, and it’s a good one, but rather than do a remake, Del Toro went back to the original 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, which includes a lot of material that was changed or not used for the older film. And being the stylist that he is, Del Toro has made a movie of intense visual richness, a dark thriller that grabs the viewer every step of the way.
Bradley Cooper plays a cunning grifter named Stanton Carlisle, whom we first see dragging what is clearly a wrapped up dead body into a hole in the floor of a run-down shack, setting it on fire, then walking away while the fire engulfs the house. It’s the late 1930s. On the run, Stan stumbles into a traveling circus, and is hired by the owner and operator, played by Willem Dafoe, as an assistant and maintenance guy. He makes friends with a mentalist act, a husband and wife team played by David Strathairn and Toni Collette, who teach him some of their tricks. He also hooks up with Molly, a sideshow performer played by Rooney Mara, and persuades her to go off with him and embark on their own career as a mentalist act, pretending to read minds and reveal secrets on stage and in nightclubs. But then a femme fatale, a psychiatrist played by Cate Blanchett, gets him involved in a much more high-stakes scheme.
Del Toro loves classic studio-era Hollywood film, to which he’s added his own heady mix of gothic symbolism and mystery. He’s great at making movies that are made completely on sets, or almost completely. That old style of cinematic illusion in which production design, music, and smooth camera work seduces an audience into its world is a perfect match for this director’s talent. As a viewer, I reveled in the artifice of his presentation, the knowledge that this is a movie not detracting one bit from the enjoyment of its style. The film is constantly startling us with vivid tracking shots, close-ups of its often grotesque characters, and unusual camera angles. Nathan Johnson’s music provides an ominous undercurrent to the tale of twisted ambition spinning out of control.
Bradley Cooper really takes it to the limit—this is among his best work yet, a maniacal yet self-contained portrait of a man always grasping for more. Rooney Mara represents a balancing force, an essentially innocent person tricked into crossing ethical boundaries because of her love for Stan. She’s the perfect counterpart to Cooper’s intensity.
A lot of mainstream filmmaking is merely competent at best, not going out of its way to challenge an audience, but tamely imitating all the other stuff out there. Guillermo del Toro is different. With Nightmare Alley, he demonstrates his commitment to continue making terrifically entertaining movies.