Guillermo del Toro’s new version shows Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett in pulsating radiance.
“Nightmare Alley,” the second film version of William Lindsay Gresham’s book, is the also the first collaboration for director Guillermo del Toro and his new lead Bradley Cooper. I almost felt like I was watching an old movie, because of how the actor used a certain kind of tone-the kind only the classics provided, when things weren’t so commercialized. He’s able to ease his emotions by reeling us into his character. “Nightmare Alley” allows Cooper to play the period character that he tried and failed to play in “Serena.”
Set in the early 1940s, Cooper plays Stan Carlisle, a down-on-his-luck conman, who finds himself at a traveling geek show, owned by Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe), whose main attraction is a cannibal who can go for weeks without food, but still puts on the chicken devouring act. He is then put to work, and resides with the psychic Meena (Toni Collette) and her former mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn), who resorted to alcoholism.
He also falls for a girl named Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act allows her survive any electrical currency, and invites her to be his girl. Although Pete warns Stan about the dangers of believing his own lies before his death, he ignores and two years later with Molly at his side, he entertains and con audiences with his so called mind-reading and spirit-feeling tricks.
Then he starts seeing the psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who doesn’t believe his talents at his previous show, and is amazed at how well he is able to surprise her. In a way, they both see what the real power is in this world, but the more he sees her, the more dangerous she proves herself to be.
Stan’s latest victims include the kindly Mrs. Harrington (Mary Steenburgen), whom he tells her deceased soldier son said they’ll be together again. But his biggest challenge is the old industrialist Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a former patient of Lilith, who is full of guilt and wants to see his dead wife again. He wants Stan to materialize her, and desperate not to be exposed as a fraud, he asks Molly to pose as her.
Almost like his last film “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro uses his visual style for the geek show. We see a head on a fake spider, which made me jump, a flexible man, and the carny has jars of animal and/or human babies who died in child birth, and one of them killed the mother in child birth. But it’s not just the visuals, but also with help from Kim Morgan, he writes the screenplay with the right roles for Cooper and Blanchett.
I’ve already delivered my praise to Cooper for stepping outside his comfort zone, but Blanchett is devilishly clever when she’s given the right attitude and dialogue. The final 20 minutes with her prove how dangerous she really is, and her acting is sublime. And the supporting work from Mara, Dafoe, and Jenkins are all fascinating when you see how well they take the book characters in their own aspects.
The movie runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes, but you don’t learn much from all the other characters, so it probably should have been shorter. But on the other hand, though, I was able to see how nostalgic and retro this film version wants to be. It’s chilling, riveting, and emotionally complex. And when you see Steenburgen’s second scene, it’s enough to shock you.