Guillermo del Toro finally turns away from the supernatural, but this grim noir remake is still haunted by the difference between monsters and men.
The observation that men are genuine monsters in Guillermo del Toro movies have become so distinctly self-evident that it now provides the same insight to notice that Quentin Tarantino loves feet, or that the old guy who appeared in the first two dozen MCU movies had something to do with comics that inspired them.
“The Shape of Water” may have been a brave choice for best film, but the Oscar-winning fable of a dumb cleaning lady falling in love with a imprisoned fisherman stretched del Toro’s lifelong obsession with gripping genre stories to an adventurous ending. It was hard to imagine what “happily ever after” could look like for someone whose B-picture heart gave him prestige-picture hardware. Would he turn away from his pet obsession, or would he use his newfound pedigree to double up like never before?
The answer is perhaps inevitably a bit of both. Adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s carbon black novel from 1946 of the same name (but even more so in debt to the 1947 Edmund Goulding adaptation starring Tyrone Power), “Nightmare Alley” is the first part of the Toro film to have no supernatural elements. at all. It’s enough to indicate a major change of pace, but the most significant deviation this shiny abscess of a noir makes from its director’s previous work is here, men are only monsters (along with a woman or two).
It’s a subtle distinction – or as subtle as anything can be in a movie about carnival barkers and circus nerds shot to look like a Norman Rockwell painting of hell – and sometimes intriguing. Without faunas, vampires, or six-foot cockroaches to externalize the evils of the world, del Toro can look past the dazzling horrors of fascism, mortality, and the New York subway system to tell a story that focuses less on the monsters around us than it does. do on the monsters inside.
It starts with Del Toro casting one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actors as a man who can not bear to look at himself. Bradley Cooper is the charming driver Stanton Carlisle, a blank slate of a stranger who says nothing in the first 10 minutes of the film and speaks with a modest hesitation when he finally does.
Stanton presents himself as a humble nobody who is happy to work a shit job if it means a hot meal, but the ominous prologue in which he burns his father’s house to the ground – and his father’s corpse along with it – suggests that our boy might have a few skeletons in the attic. Not that carnival barker Clem Hoately, played by a diabolical Willem Dafoe, would like that; all in his extended family of maladapted and outcast ended up with the circus because they fell from grace or fled from its absence, and no one is in the habit of asking questions.
Del Toro and Kim Morgan’s brass script, set between 1939 and 1941, is more true to the previous film than it is to the book that inspired it, and also abolishes the sharp backstory that made it impossible to read Gresham’s novel without to get dirt under the nails. Yet this film is bursting with actors who can hint at richer stories than most could ever hope to write.
David Strathairn is early prominent as the alcoholic mentalist Pete Krumbein, a man who used to do shows in Paris and now drinks to forget that he fainted during a flea-infested scene in Palookaville. There’s a lot of wisdom swirling around his wet head, and Stanton is suspiciously eager to receive it.
Pete’s wife and “psychic” stage partner Zeena (Toni Collette) try not to dwell on the past, which is easier to do when Stanton knocks on the door and then dresses down for a bath in her living room. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Stanton’s eyes fall on the young and unassuming Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), who is born into this life and does not seem to want anything better.
For all these colorful characters, one could argue that no one makes a stronger impression on Stanton than the wild nerd that Clem keeps up with opium and keeps locked up in a cage until showtime … when he tears off a chicken’s head and drinks off its neck in a scandalized crowd. Stanton has a gift for reading people, but he can not figure out how a man can be reduced to such a sick attraction.
Clem likes to explain the process in dizzying detail, but that does not make it any easier for Stanton to understand. Some people will drink anything to get away from their fears, while others are born to prey on their hopes. Stanton is as sure of it as he is of his role in that equation, and Cooper is so good at playing men who believe in their own bullshit that we naturally assume he’s right.
Of course, this smart salesman is smarter than rubes who pay a quarter to watch Molly electrocute herself or listen to Zeena communicate with the spirit of their dead father (he’s here and he’s proud of you). And if a little bit of magical thinking helps them sleep better at night, then what’s the harm?
Then again, Stanton may not be as qualified as he thinks to make that call. Just because he’s spent his entire life thinking only of himself does not mean he knows firsthand who he really is under the symmetrical smile. All it means is that he does not want to know.
After he and Ruth steal away from the circus and have found success in performing second-rate Ricky Jay shows for the Buffalo elite, it looks like Stanton may get rich enough to stop looking altogether. The view is so tempting that he does not even think to ask why a local psychologist, of all people, is so determined to help him try.
Cate Blanchett inhabits the role of Dr. Lilith Ritter from the cheekbones and out, and film photographer Dan Laustsen lights the pistol-filled femme fatale, as if she is always standing next to Gene Tierney’s window slats. Lilith introduces all sorts of sharp angles to a film that often loses its contours under shiny layers of saturation.
It’s so exciting to see Blanchett spar with Cooper during their characters’ private sessions – the sparkling art deco setups and the constantly falling snow add a gothic threat right out of “Batman Returns” – that del Toro might be forgiven for only allowing her and Mara for sharing a single eerie scene, each of the actors endowed in the middle of the century looks worthy of the “Carol” reunion.
Although Blanchett’s performance is strong, the back half of this story grinds down Lilith’s darkest contours. The character does a fine job of cutting Stanton down to size, but del Toro can not help but make her seem larger than life in the process, and that grandiosity confuses Lilith’s role in Stanton’s inevitable doom.
“Nightmare Alley” is mercifully less plastic than del Toro’s latest work, but even an Oscar-winning tiger can’t change its stripes. The sleek patina that the director brings to all of his digital work still fits poorly into a film so bleak that every ray of light feels like a lie that Stanton is selling.
That approach has its advantage, especially in the sweet and sour carnival scenes that make the whole of America look like a corpse that has been beautified into an open coffin. The florid melodrama that seeps into the second half, however, has been pushed so far that the world itself is beginning to seem unreal, and not just Stanton’s perception of it. Maybe it’s just Del Toro’s way of getting viewers to see through the list, but we’re losing so much texture about these characters in the process.
By the time “Nightmare Alley” reaches its completely sick punchline of a final scene, it’s hard not to feel that del Toro understood Stanton’s trajectory better than the hunger that propelled him forward. Stanton is, after all, the opposite of the director: one is a true believer who does not expect the audience to take his stories literally, and the other is a deceiver who needs his clients buying into every word. It’s never boring to see del Toro try to reproduce his negative image, but people can only find so many details in their own shadows.
If “Nightmare Alley” still manages to sting, it’s because all the computer-assisted saturation in the world can not dull the power of Stanton’s gradual self-discovery. “Take a look at yourself, sinner,” reads a sign above the mirrors inside Clem’s House of the Damned, and del Toro makes sure he does just that. This filthy excavation in the cavity of a human soul strangely suits a director who has spent his career searching for magic in the darkest margins of our world, but del Toro’s natural empathy for even the most accursed creatures he finds there brings new life on it. “Nightmare Alley” as it narrows towards its inevitable dead end.
Searchlight Pictures is releasing “Nightmare Alley” in theaters on Friday, December 17th.
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