The only scary creatures in Guillermo del Toro’s bold neo-noir are the human monsters that prey on emotional frailty and weakness. No hornless Hellboys, no leviathan kaiju, no lovesick amphibians, no mimicking mantises: just flesh-and-blood hustlers motivated by good old American greed. While fantastical beings don’t inhabit its post-Depression era world of grimy rural carnivals and tony art deco nightclubs, the perversely imaginative del Toro offers up something here as disturbing as the Pale Man (eyeballs embedded in his palms) in Pan’s Labyrinth: a pickled fetus floating in a formaldehyde-filled jar, its doll-like body stitched from head to toe, a monstrous third eye in the middle of its forehead as omniscient as the faceless orbs of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg surveying the wasteland in The Great Gatsby. Biblically christened Enoch, this stillborn presence presides over Nightmare Alley with all-seeing authority, bearing silent witness to the chicanery of its charlatans. Though Enoch is briefly glimpsed as part of a sideshow attraction called “The Unborn Wonders of Nature” early in the film, its ominous presence lingers after the movie shifts to a more affluent milieu, visually memorialized in the golden oculus centered on the black blindfold that sham mentalist Stanton Carlisle (a handsomely earnest Cooper) wears when scamming the elite of Buffalo, New York, in his posh act. Like Dr. Eckleburg’s eternal pitiless gaze in Fitzgerald’s novel, there’s no escape from its cyclopean scrutiny in this cautionary tale about the foolhardiness of playing God.
Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 controversial cult novel, the script by del Toro and Kim Morgan is exactingly constructed to clarify its themes in ways that the 1947 Hollywood studio adaptation starring Tyrone Power (cast against type) could only hint. (The film’s slightly long 150-minute running time affords this narrative luxury.) The plot is unusual by contemporary standards, though conventionally straightforward compared to other films in del Toro’s oeuvre. A man with a secret (he’s first seen setting fire to an unidentified wrapped corpse in a desolate farmhouse), down-on-his-luck drifter Stan finds work as a carny performing menial jobs until recruited to assist in a con game in which bogus psychic Zeena (Collette), with the unseen assistance of her alcoholic husband Pete (Strathairn), bamboozles rube audience members with false prescience. To paraphrase one character’s observation: You don’t have to fool people when they can fool themselves.
Soon, Stan gets a taste for the psychological pleasure of deceiving people (and its financial rewards) after discovering he has a keen gift for deduction masquerading as clairvoyance. After inheriting a treasured notebook containing coded words, inflections, and gestures for use in a more sophisticated flimflam from the late Pete, he and his somewhat naive love interest Molly (Mara) mount a successful tuxedoed and gowned act bamboozling rich patrons in the big city. Not long thereafter, the avariciously ambitious Stan attracts the curiosity of unscrupulous psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Blanchett, lapping it up with feline intensity), with whom he conspires to bilk well-off clients desperate to communicate with deceased loved ones. It’s a Faustian bargain that lands him on the couch in more than one sense. (He’s got a lot of daddy issues to explore.) From there, the film’s antihero’s pursuit of the American dream of wealth takes a treacherous turn, exiting onto the figurative backstreet of the title.
The production values are top-notch, not surprising for a del Toro film. He may be the most sensuous filmmaker today, blessed with an acute sense of both the glamorous and the grotesque. Dan Laustsen’s brown-hued cinematography evokes a Bentonesque quality in the first section of the movie, while the opulent second half – the sumptuous production and set design of Lilith’s wood-paneled office is the salivating work of Tamara Deverell and Brandt Gordon, respectively – conjures up memories of Hollywood soundstages from the Thirties, albeit it’s much more extravagant than anything MGM would have underwritten. The impressive ensemble cast hits its assigned marks in the melodrama, though the movie lacks the romantic empathy of The Shape of Water – a movie to which this one will inevitably be compared – to allow the actors to get under your skin. All said, Nightmare Alley is something to be admired, rather than treasured. It’s big, classic moviemaking with a moral in the end. And there can be a lot to be said for that.
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