It’s hard to believe, but the last time we saw a Guillermo del Toro directed film was 2017 – what seems like an eternity ago – and that was The Shape Of Water. Not that he’s been idle, with multiple TV series, production and writing duties, but even though his follow-up to his Best Picture winner was announced that same year, the combination of Covid and the leading actor’s availability held up Nightmare Alley’s production, hence that five year gap.
The film had been on del Toro’s mind for way longer. Since 1992, in fact, when he was given a copy of William Lindsay Gresham’s noir novel of the same name by Ron Perlman, who also appears in the film. It tells the story of hobo Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who falls in with a travelling carnival and becomes the apt pupil of fake clairvoyant Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). Constantly with an eye to the main chance, Carlisle is convinced that he and another performer Molly (Rooney Mara) could make it big away from the carnival and the two set off for the city, where their mind-reading act becomes the toast of high society. His ambition is further fuelled by Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who is fascinated by his manipulative skills and encourages him to con one of her wealthy clients. It works to such an extent that Carlisle is introduced to the powerful but sinister Grindle (Richard Jenkins) and he devises an even more elaborate con. One that could demolish everything he’s built for himself.
Usually associated with the monsters of horror/fantasy, del Toro appears to have moved away to give us something closer to noir. But those monsters have simply taken on a new guise – a human one – in a film that takes us deep into the darkest corners of the soul, the ones where deceit, manipulation, greed and lust lurk and thrive. At the same time, he gives us a very stylish noir, one with everything we expect and is replete with references to other classics from the genre – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and more. The blonde femme fatale is there, as is the younger woman with the older husband, the Depression era setting, the cynical view of human nature. And visually, it’s a stunning creation, from the sumptuous wealth of Dr Lilith and her clients to the grubbiness of the frequently rain-soaked carnival.
Nightmare Alley has arrived with something of a fanfare and there is much that deserves to be trumpeted. Those visuals for one, the glowering atmosphere for another and the star studded cast, with a deliciously slippery Cooper, an icy Blanchett and the ever-reliable Strathairn as the clairvoyant’s vulnerable husband. But all, as in the story itself, is not quite as it should be. There are inconsistences: older carnival workers constantly describe Cooper’s character as “young”, but he’s clearly closer to 50. There are two definite halves to the narrative, one in the carnival and the other in the city, and the two are so distinct that the whole they create is a miniseries, not a movie. It’s accentuated by the feeling of needing a firmer hand in the editing suite, one that would have capitalised on some of the stronger set pieces, while slicing away at some of the padding.
When the end comes, it’s no surprise – except to the characters involved – but produces an indelible final image. Del Toro has saved the best until last. But it also makes you want more from an eminently watchable film which promises volumes, delivers a lot but never quite reaches the heights you desperately wish for.
Thriller, Noir | Cert: 15 | Cinemas, 21 January 2022 | Walt Disney Studios | Dir. Guillermo del Toro | Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman.