Some filmmakers get so caught up in the look and feel of their films that they lose their grip on the storytelling. Others know how to tell a good story but don’t have the money or the clout to hire great teammates to help them realize their vision. With Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro has deftly balanced both demands and crafted an exceptionally good movie that stands as one of the year’s best.
William Lindsay Gresham’s bleak, provocative novel has been filmed before, in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the starring role. It was a fluke for mainstream Hollywood, a downbeat movie which gave its handsome leading man something to sink his teeth into.
Bradley Cooper also has good looks but has proven himself as actor of substance and daring in such films as American Sniper and Silver Linings Playbook. Nightmare Alley offers him his greatest challenge to date, as a drifter who hooks up with a traveling carnival, where he cuts a wide swath and walks away knowing some tricks of the trade. He exploits his newfound knowledge in a high-end mind-reading act, which brings him to the attention of a stylish femme fatale (Cate Blanchett) who beckons him down the road to ruin.
This can lead to only one conclusion, and neither Cooper nor del Toro is afraid of going there.
In fact, Del Toro wrote the screen adaptation along with noir afcionado Kim Morgan. He wrings every bit of emotion from the protagonist’s fateful journey down a rabbit hole that holds no hope of a happy ending. Along the way we experience the shady atmosphere of a carnival (run by Willem Dafoe) and its colorful denizens, including Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, and Ron Perlman. The cast is fleshed out by such welcome players as Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Tim Blake Nelson and del Toro favorite Jim Beaver.
Filmed on striking locations in and around Buffalo, New York by the gifted Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen who shot del Toro’s Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water), the lavish production benefits from evocative production design by Tamara Deverell (who’s worked on the director’s TV projects like The Strain) and costumes by Luis Sequeira (a veteran of The Shape of Water and The Strain).
This is a satisfying, fully realized film noir where the characters are more than stereotypes, yet each one fits neatly into the picture-puzzle pattern found in Gresham’s source novel. We empathize with the antihero even as we recognize the bad choices he’s making… and we luxuriate in the rich art deco period flavor that the director serves up for us. Only a filmmaker as knowledgeable and passionate as Guillermo del Toro could have made this picture, and I’m awfully glad he did.