In Guillermo Del Toro‘s latest movie, Nightmare Alley, Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, a mysterious 1930s Don Draper who attempts to build a new life as a carnie. He befriends strongmen (Ron Perlman), electric ladies (Rooney Mara), gypsy women (Toni Collette), and the head honcho, Clem, played by Willem Dafoe, who keeps a man in a cage like an animal and feeds him live chickens. A “geek,” in carnie parlance.
Are you onboard yet? I sure was. Give me Willem Dafoe as an affably malevolent grifter every day and twice on Sunday. With the occasional notable exceptions like Water For Elephants and that X-Files episode about circus freaks, there’s been an unfortunate dearth of films set in the world of carnies in the past 20 years. Nightmare Alley belatedly scratches that itch, to see clannish petty conmen go from town to town fleecing rubes and emptying flasks, all while speaking a patois of folksy crime slang. Stan Carlisle joins up by trading Clem his radio for a job dismantling tents, eventually befriending a husband-and-wife team of mentalists, Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her besotted husband, Pete (David Straithairn), who drops important knowledge on Stan whenever he’s not piss-pants drunk.
Stan learns how the sausage is made, but like Christian Bale’s character in The Prestige, seems to yearn for the kind of trick that isn’t really a trick. This even as Zeena and Pete warn him not to do “the spook show,” giving folks false hopes about their dead relatives (of which there are many, on account of it’s the 30s). I like to imagine this as a cautionary tale for actors, many of whom seem to become more and more convinced that they actually have superpowers the longer they play make-believe (Sean Penn’s William Holden in Licorice Pizza is the perfect example of this kind of character). It’s a form of irony poisoning, similar to the way advertising people can shift from knowingly peddling bullshit to believing that they’re providing some form of a public service, a self-deception borne out of self-protection. When we’re good at something we naturally want to believe that that thing is important, even if it isn’t.
But of course, Stan is drawn to the spook show like rubes to a Tarot table and eventually he sets off on his own with the electric girl, played by Rooney Mara. They create a solo show together, get promoted to the big leagues of carnie-dom, “going straight,” after a fashion, and start playing the cities. Eventually Stan crosses paths with a diabolical psychologist played by Cate Blanchett, who seems to want to shrink his head. You can probably imagine what happens from there, Stanley getting in too deep and so forth, though it takes an unnecessarily long time to play out. Nightmare Alley runs 150 minutes when 100 or so would’ve served it.
I haven’t wholeheartedly loved a Guillermo Del Toro movie probably since Pan’s Labyrinth, and in the end I don’t wholeheartedly love Nightmare Alley either, though it had me on the hook for a long time and even offers some late third act thrills. Del Toro is a refreshingly capable stylist, as he always is, but like Stanley himself, he seems to reach a point where he convinces himself that he’s doing more than making pulp. His facility with pulpy imagery gives his movies solid hooks, but they tend to fall flat when it comes time to break out of cartoon mode and offer something real and insightful. Well-done pulp is great, but the cardinal sin of pulp filmmaking is forgetting that it’s still a parlor trick. Del Toro, unfortunately, tries to do the spook show.