Director Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham
Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson, Clifton Collins Jr., Holt McCallany

Nightmare Alley is an overlong, essentially joyless movie that contains the grotesque beauty we’ve come to expect from de Toro. Bradley Cooper is Stan Carslile, a man running from his past right into an even worse future. He finds himself in a travelling carnival, gets one job, then another. Along the way he meets a father figure (Strathairn) that he invariably steals secrets from as he leads him to death. From there he makes off with Molly (Mara) to start a grift of their own. Before leaving, and even after, he is warned by a friend (Collette) to “stay away from the spook show.”

Guess what show he heads towards.

The acting feels more costume oriented rather than people actually living in a world. Blanchett is a femme fatale psychologist who falls in with Stan while they explore bigger and more dangerous cons. Jenkins plays a rich man with a horrid past that somehow hopes to be absolved without changing at all. Mara’s Molly is the doll with a heart of gold who invariably must be betrayed by Stan’s insatiable quest for more and more.

This is Bradley Cooper’s movie, to be sure. He plays Stan as continually guilty but starving for more of the same. He knows he cannot win. He’d likely be disappointed if he did succeed. And still he moves slowly towards his doom. His performance is less nuanced than a forceful push through material that is too dark to allow anything but move ahead. There are no surprises. Just misery in waiting.

Del Toro’s entire career is a passion project. Here he takes a revered work of noir starring Tyrone Power and removes the tacked on happy ending and stays true to Gresham’s dark vision. He stays true to the novel’s feeling, even if the effect is numbing and feels more artistic than alive. It’s unusual for del Toro work to lack a sense of vibrancy. Perhaps the pressure of being an auteur is bringing him to another level. This viewer would be glad to see him relax a bit once more.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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