Guillermo del Toro is a master of blending dark fantasy with brutal reality. Pan’s Labyrinth had one foot in a little’s girl’s wild imagination and another in the horrors of war. The Shape of Water applied real-world prejudice to a classic Beauty and the Beast story. Nightmare Alley is among del Toro’s most grounded films, trading the supernatural for psychological thrills. Regardless, Nightmare Alley still oozes with the otherworldly atmosphere we associate with del Toro. He makes a psychologist’s office feel like Frankenstein’s lab and turns a carnival into Wonderland. Our protagonist wears many different hats, although we’re left guessing just how mad he’ll become by the end.
Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, Nightmare Alley was previously adapted into a 1947 film noir. Although regarded as a staple of the genre now, the original film failed to make a profit. Some audiences were caught off guard with the casting of Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle. Although Power gave one of his most layered performances, the public wasn’t prepared to see him as a calculating conman following swashbuckler roles like Zorro. Bradley Cooper is a more than worthy successor, putting up a charismatic façade as a carny learning the arc of mind-reading. The more Stan learns about mentalist techniques, the bastard underneath is unearthed.
With a few exceptions, del Toro’s Nightmare Alley hits many of the same beats as the 1947 film. Yet, del Toro manages to stretch out the run time by almost thirty minutes. Even when the film moves at a leisurely pace, del Toro always draws us in with hypnotic production design and gothic terror behind the curtains. There’s always an unnerving sense of dread following Stan. It’s as if karma is on his trail and the deeper he digs himself into deceit, the closer his comeuppance draws in. Alexandre Desplat’s musical score also creates an inviting yet disturbing sentiment throughout, matching the film’s tone perfectly.
While the original has tighter pacing, del Toro’s film fleshes out more of the supporting players. Rooney Mara’s Molly isn’t just a supportive love interest, but a resilient woman who knows when to walk away. Richard Jenkins brings more empathy to Ezra Grindle, a skeptic whose grief and guilt turn him into a believer. Cate Blanchett practically steals the show as Dr. Lilith Ritter, putting the fatal in femme fatale. Toni Collette’s Zeena, David Strathairn’s Pete, and Ron Perlman’s Bruno are about on par with their predecessors, which is still high praise.
Like Don’t Look Up, another holiday release starring Blanchett and Perlman, Nightmare Alley successfully balances its stacked cast. However, the film belongs to Cooper, who touches upon Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance in There Will Be Blood. While not as showy as Daniel Plainview, Stan’s greed-filled journey from top to bottom makes for one of Cooper’s most complex roles. Del Toro also remains more faithful to the novel’s haunting ending. Without giving anything away, the 1947 film received a more traditional Hollywood ending, albeit with some ambiguity. Del Toro pulls no punches, delivering the bleak conclusion that this material deserves. It’s a nightmare that knows when to wake up.