Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has always had a lingering fascination with monsters, so it’s no surprise that he’d be drawn to the circus-set psychological noir “Nightmare Alley.” 

Originally a novel published in 1946 by William Lindsay Gresham, and a 1947 classic film noir starring Tyrone Power and directed by Edmund Goulding, “Nightmare Alley” is an exceedingly bleak observation of the darkest underbelly of the human condition. Based on stories that Gresham heard from a former carnival worker while they served in the Spanish Civil War, it’s a shockingly nihilistic piece of fiction, which may be why del Toro’s approach to the material doesn’t quite work. He’s always had empathy for monsters, but when the monsters at hand are such monstrous men, the outlook becomes muddled in this oversized version of the tale.

The original “Nightmare Alley” film, produced under the restrictive Hollywood Hays Code, only suggests and refers to the sex and violence that underpins this world and the motivations of the characters within. In del Toro’s version, innuendo is out the window, and all the gory details are splayed on the table, dissected for the audience to inspect. But that doesn’t necessarily make this a better take on the story; rather, it neuters its power, removing the influence of the audience’s imagination.

Bradley Cooper steps into the role of Stanton Carlisle, a drifter with a mysterious and bloody past, who stumbles into a traveling circus and into a job as a carny. Observant, self-preserving, and a quick study, he soon takes up with Zeena (Toni Collette), an aging blonde with a mentalist routine she performs with her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn). Appealing to both Zeena and Pete’s vanity and baser instincts, Stan ingratiates himself with the couple before he deftly makes off with the tricky verbal code they’ve developed for their act, and a young carnival babe, Molly (Rooney Mara).

With code in hand, Stan claws his way out of the muck of the circus tent and into the soigné big city nightclubs where he entrances the hoity-toity set with his psychic act, and encounters the femme fatale to end all femme fatales: Cate Blanchett as psychoanalyst Dr. Lilith Ritter. Seeing opportunity in each other, they strike a sort of deal. Dr. Ritter will supply Stan with the innermost secrets of her moneyed clientele, he’ll cook up quasi-spiritual schemes about their dearly departed from the great beyond. They set their sights on the grinchy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), probing his dark past to fleece him of his cash. But Stan tempts fate by using the code in service of a “spook show,” rather than lighthearted carnival tricks.

This all plays out with del Toro’s signature attention to design and visual detail. The circus is a place of abjection and despair; it rains almost constantly on the drunks and freaks who have forged a family under the tent, their patriarch the cruel, profit-minded Clem (Willem Dafoe). In the sophisticated, urbane world of Dr. Ritter, the camera glides over rich Art Deco designs and plush furnishings, the golden wood panels in her office concealing all of her secrets.

The craft is no doubt impressive, as well as the cavalcade of stars. But the actors all seem to be coasting on persona and presence, offering their best imitations of film noir character archetypes rather than revealing anything about the characters themselves. The script, by del Toro and Kim Morgan lays bare the mental and emotional machinations of each character, offering up psychological explanations in a film that takes on the novel new science of psychoanalysis. 

At two and a half hours, it’s a bloated and unwieldy beast, and less intriguing than its lean, mean 1947 counterpart. It’s not often that one longs for the creative limitations of the Hays Code, but in the case of “Nightmare Alley,” the maxim that “less is more” indeed proves to be true.



2.5 out of 4 stars

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Rated R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language.

Where to watch: In theaters Friday


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