Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley doesn’t waste any time telling you what kind of movie it is. The film opens with a slow, patient shot of a man dragging a body across the floor of an empty, decrepit home, only to unceremoniously drop it in a makeshift hole. Moments later, the man, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), sets the house — and the body buried within — ablaze.
The message is clear: Nightmare Alley is not a fairytale like The Shape of Water or Pan’s Labyrinth. This is but a film about ugly people, the kind who handle the dead with the same level of consideration one might carry a sack of rotting potatoes. The rest of del Toro’s movie fulfills the promise of its wordless opening scene, delivering a noir horror that seeks to expose the darkest parts of one man’s soul.
It’s the most realistic film of del Toro’s career, utterly devoid of the ghosts, fantastical creatures, and magic that populate so much of his work. It’s also the scariest film he’s ever made.
Nightmare Alley follows Cooper’s Carlisle as he flees his burning childhood home and joins the crew of a traveling carnival run by the manipulative Clem (Willem Dafoe). Traveling with the carnival crew, Carlisle bonds with their resident psychic Zeena (Toni Collete) and her sweet, alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), and he enters a romance with the young Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara). Pete and Zeera teach Clem the ways of mentalism, while he and Molly dream about running away together.
When the two lovebirds leave their friends behind, they find just the success they’d been hoping for. Stan makes waves as a mentalist known as “The Great Stanton,” while Molly works as his assistant. Stan’s success catches the attention of wealthy benefactors willing to pay him for private readings, but also of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a high-profile psychiatrist who takes a personal interest in deconstructing Stan’s public persona.
Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name, Nightmare Alley is a slow burn. It takes its time setting up Stan’s rise and inevitable fall, and its script, co-written by del Toro and Kim Morgan, ensures viewers are aware of the many ways in which Stan is a fraud.
It pays off, and our knowledge of his lies makes watching Stan’s ambitions exceed his abilities in Nightmare Alley’s back half that much more unnerving.
That sense of dread, the ever-present knowledge that Stan’s schemes will eventually catch up to him, permeates Nightmare Alley with an inescapable sense of doom.
That feeling brings a lot to the film, especially in its second act when its script fails to maintain a sense of forward momentum. Fortunately, Nightmare Alley’s slow spots don’t last long, and the movie is at its best in its engrossing, carnival-set first act and in its undeniably anxiety-inducing finale. The middle act, where Stan builds his career as a big-city mentalist, can feel like being force-fed your vegetables before dessert, but it’s still beautiful to look at.
Nightmare Alley is del Toro’s most visually stunning film to date. Shot by Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water cinematographer Dan Laustsen, the film is a shadowy, golden homage to the 1940s Hollywood noirs del Toro so clearly adores (Nightmare Alley was, in fact, previously adapted in 1947). The introduction of Blanchett’s Lilith Ritter feels pulled directly out of a Golden Age film, with the actress initially appearing solely in silhouette, cigarette smoke swirling around her, before stepping into the light.
Nightmare Alley’s performers all rise to meet the standards set by del Toro and his crew. Blanchett turns in a delightfully cold-blooded performance as Ritter, proving she would have fit in quite nicely in the 1940s Hollywood scene. Of the film’s carnival crew, David Strathairn makes a lasting impression as Pete, a man who’s seen and done just about everything Stan will, and is content with having just barely survived it.
But Nightmare Alley would be nothing without Bradley Cooper, who cements his status as one of Hollywood’s greatest living movie stars with his performance. As Stan, a man who’s less clever but more cruel than he believes, Cooper says nary a word for the first 20 minutes. It doesn’t matter: You watch his every movement and mannerism anyway.
When Stan’s weaknesses and arrogance begin to get the better of him, Cooper plays him with the conviction of a man who doesn’t realize the fire has already surrounded him. Later, once Stan finally acknowledges the severity of his situation, Cooper brings unexpected shades of relief and acceptance to his performance, adding a layer of bittersweetness to the film’s largely savage final act.
An outlier in del Toro’s filmography, Nightmare Alley stands as a straightforward noir with no supernatural elements, almost as if del Toro chose to make the opposite of The Shape of Water, his 2017 Best Picture winner. But despite its genre difference, Nightmare Alley fits in well with the director’s previous work.
Like all of del Toro’s films, Nightmare Alley is fascinated by ghosts. Its characters long to reclaim what they’ve lost, whether it’s a loved one or the life they used to live. In the case of Stanton Carlisle, Guillermo del Toro makes the case that it’s not just the past that can haunt a man, but the future.
When the film ultimately reaches its splendidly cynical final punchline, we see how Stan’s future had been reaching out to him all along, pulling him into its steely embrace. As Nightmare Alley proves, sometimes there’s nothing scarier than realizing you were never actually who you thought you were.
Nightmare Alley opens in theaters on December 17.