Bradley Cooper stars in ‘Nightmare Alley’. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’ is not a horror movie as some may expect, but it is a dark, suspense thriller that gradually tightens its grip on audiences and doesn’t let go until the credits.
Actions speak louder than words and what they say about a person can speak volumes. Regardless of how charming or good-looking someone might be, it means nothing if it’s not backed up by kindness or good deeds. In the end, that’s the measure of whether someone has lived a good life — not how many people they’ve hoodwinked with their natural gifts. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for illusion or trickery as a form of entertainment, but there is a line respectable performers understand should not be crossed. These conventions are the basis of Guillermo del Toro’s latest picture, Nightmare Alley.
Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is rather aimless when he follows a little person (Mark Povinelli) into a carnival. Offered work, a meal and a bed, he quickly entrenches himself in carney life. He zeros in on an act that complements his natural talents — a mentalist show that uses a number of ploys to convince the marks their minds have been read. While trying to tease the tricks of the trade out of the old “psychic” (David Strathairn), he also beguiles Molly (Rooney Mara), a young stage performer, and makes her fall in love with him. Finally ready to take his charisma on the road, the pair runaway and establish a very successful show in upper-class venues. However, when presented with the opportunity to make more money by pretending to communicate with the dead, Stan cannot help himself. Recruiting the help of a sultry psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett), the conman gets in way over his head… and he may not be able to talk his way out this time.
This is somewhat of a departure for del Toro, who is primarily known for his horror pictures. This movie is free of (mythical) monsters and the supernatural. However, it’s a thriller to the truest sense of the word and has a very dark plot as it explores themes of deception, greed and retribution. The aesthetic reflects this darkness as even scenes of bright and vivid luxury have a gloominess about them, as if a black cloud is always lurking to dim life’s glory. It gives the movie a riveting sense of dread as everywhere Stan goes holds the potential for disappointment or disaster.
The character development is slow and deliberate. Audiences may feel they know someone on the screen, but there’s always another reveal that brings viewers a little deeper into the person’s psyche, confirming a suspicion or taking a new path altogether. The cast is a remarkable collection of talent, including Jim Beaver, Clifton Collins Jr., Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Tim Blake Nelson, Ron Perlman and Mary Steenburgen in addition to those already mentioned. It’s a different sort of role for each of them, but they each take up their characters’ personalities flawlessly. Whether it’s carnival barker, strong man, assertive woman in a man’s world, or grieving tycoon, they own it and make it entirely believable — which is the key to a movie that trades in deceit.
Sometimes the ending makes the movie and this one does not disappoint, delivering an eloquent and hauntingly fitting conclusion to a story that seeks satisfaction, not redemption.