Nightmare Alley is almost like two movies in one. The first half takes place in one location and has a distinct feel; the second half takes place in a completely different location and has a feel all its own. Normally that might be a bad thing, but Guillermo del Toro makes that first half glide naturally into the second, building a logical arc for the main character. The director follows up his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water with a picture that, for my money, is even better. Two-and-a-half hours fly right by as you go on a wild ride with a man you'll simultaneously despise and be fascinated by.
That man is Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). He's a drifter who stumbles into a carnival run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe). Clem gives him a job, and it doesn't take long for Stanton to display serious ambition. He helps one performer, Molly (Rooney Mara), spice up her “electrocution” act. Then, after befriending resident psychic Zeena (Toni Collette), he learns the art of mentalism from her husband Pete (David Strathairn). Armed with that knowledge – and horrified by attractions like the geek who bites heads off chickens – Stanton convinces Molly to run away with him.
The second section finds the couple a few years later, where they perform a mentalism routine in fancy clubs. In the crowd one night is psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She knows he's running a scam, and arranges for Stanton to con some very rich, prominent people, most notably a guy named Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). Conning him could literally be dangerous. The question, though, is who's conning who, since Lilith's motives are a mystery. Nightmare Alley becomes a cat-and-mouse game as the psychiatrist and the mentalist both work to control a potentially explosive situation.
Early scenes in the film benefit from the carnival setting. Outstanding set design and dark, moody cinematography give the place a sinister vibe that instantly sets us on edge. Although ostensibly created to entertain, Clem's operation has lots of backstage menace taking place. We may be uncomfortable, but Stanton is soaking that up, figuring out how he can use it to his advantage. Spot-on performances from Collette and Strathairn help us understand why the character is drawn to them as heavily as he is. They also issue some dire warnings that we know he won't ultimately follow. Essentially, the carnival section is just a set-up for the second half, yet it's so alluring that the time there is well-spent.
Later scenes have more of a slick art deco look in the sets and costumes. Whereas the first part of Nightmare Alley is dark and brooding, the second part suggests evil lurking under a polished surface. Stanton is strolling around the edges of high society. This world is more foreign to him than the carnival, so the danger might not be as apparent. His meetings with Ezra are almost unbearably tense, and the psychological back-and-forth with Lilith proves mesmerizing.
Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan have fun toying with us. Most of the prominent characters have something to hide, meaning we can never be 100% sure what any of them are up to. The film consequently keeps you guessing from start to finish. Every time the plot seems to be going in a linear direction, a new twist is thrown in, or a new bit of information is revealed that changes our perception. It all builds to a shocking denouement that leaves you reeling.
Nightmare Alley is the kind of picture you get lost in. The world it creates is vivid, and the people inhabiting that world are captivating, thanks to the uniformly superb cast. Moving outside his usual realm of straight-up fantasy, del Toro has delivered a work that examines the various shades of human malice to hypnotic effect. This is a masterpiece of mood and tone, as well as a movie you want to see again the minute it's over.
out of four
Nightmare Alley is rated R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes.