I always find myself wanting to love a Guillermo del Toro film, but ultimately only liking it. There's something about them – at least his English language productions; Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, both set in Spain, are pretty flawless – that never quite wins me over. They all look fantastic, and del Toro certainly has a distinctive style... maybe it's that they just never amount to as much as I expect them to. And so it goes with Nightmare Alley.
Del Toro's first feature sans supernatural elements, Nightmare Alley is less a remake of the little-seen 1947 film noir than it is a new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel. The story opens in 1939, with soft-spoken Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) dragging a bodybag, filled with body, under the floorboards of an old Oklahoma house. Stan then sets the house on fire, walks away, and catches the first bus to the end of the line.
The end of the line happens to be a carnival, run by a sleazy but honest carny played by the sleazy but honest Willem Dafoe. Stan takes a lowly job looking after a sideshow geek (a lunatic who bites the heads off chickens) but has talent and ambition. And so he climbs his way up the ladder, learning the tricks of mind-reading acts with an eye toward striking out on his own. He woos a young coworker (Rooney Mara) and the two leave the carnival for greener pastures. End of the first half of the movie.
I don't think I'm spoiling any surprises by saying that; promotional materials make it clear that a glammed-up Cate Blanchett – is she ever not glammed-up? – is among Nightmare Alley's principal cast, and she's nowhere to be seen at the carnival. But of the film's second half, I will say only that it takes place two years later with Stan and his girl now a popular nightclub act. Yet despite his success, Stan still desires more, and you know this isn't going to end well for him. The film's title is a big giveaway, provided you pay attention to the one time it's uttered in the dialogue.
As ever, this is a great-looking film. Guillermo del Toro + freak shows + con artists = how could you miss? Nightmare Alley succeeds on its own merits, and I appreciate del Toro's eagerness to take the story into the darkest places imaginable, with no apologies. This is a bleak movie. But if it doesn't totally work, that may be the fault of Bradley Cooper, whose character isn't likable – he's not supposed to be – but isn't deliciously detestable either. Stan's utter emptiness may be the point here, but he's just not that interesting to watch.