What do you want to believe, folks? That is the question at the heart of "Nightmare Alley" Guillermo del Toro's rapturous new film, a remake of Edmund Goulding 1947 screen version, itself an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's novel. (The original film is currently available on the Criterion Channel, and well worth watching.)
The story, which takes place in the late 1930s/early 1940s, is one of make-believe; it is set in the carny world where the wonders are, of course, not what they seem. Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) wanders into this world having taken a bus to its last stop; he enters an unreal world as a way to escape the real world and a past that haunts him. Stan does not speak for the first 12 minutes of the film, a sign that he is a man of mystery, taking in this new world, seeing how it suits him. Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe), the carny owner, feeds into this myth, and tells him that no one really cares who he is or what he has done.
Clem also slowly reveals that the carnival's geek — a half-man/half-beast who bites live chickens — is really just a drunk whose stupor is sweetened with drops of an opium tincture. Zeena (Toni Collette), the carny's medium, also takes a cotton to Stan, telling him he can drawl slow and hustle fast to sucker folks; adding that he has panache as she fondles him in his bath.
Stan claims he doesn't know what panache is, but he seems to be quite clever at picking up tricks of the trade. He learns the code that Zeena and her husband Pete (David Strathairn) developed for their mentalist act. He builds a better mousetrap for the comely Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act involves electrocution. And he smooth talks a cop out of shutting the carny down, showing how he can read a mark by his shoes.
"Nightmare Alley" spends its first hour in this fertile world and allows del Toro to indulge in his patented cinematic flair. (The film, lensed by Dan Laustsen has style to burn, and the period production design by Tamara Deverell is quite fabulous). There is an intense sequence set in the funhouse and some pickled specimens that could have been borrowed from the Mütter Museum. (Some viewers may wish the carny scenes were even more elaborate.)
However, this first act is only setting up Stan's character as someone who can charm his way out of anything. He soon develops a plan to take Molly and Pete's code on the road to fortune if not fame. After Stan commits a crime, he and Molly take off. Two years later, they are performing the mentalist act in swanky nightclubs where she clues him with her questions until Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) prompts him to guess what is in her purse. He sees this dame as not hard to read and correctly deduces the contents, which impresses her.
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When they reconnect later in her lavishly appointed office — Lilith is a psychiatrist — she is irresistibly sultry. Lilith consents to give Stan details of her patients' lives so he can "see" their past in private readings. In exchange for this privileged information, he must tell her the truth about his life. Stan greedily agrees, and recounts his backstory, flashes of which are interspersed throughout the film. Stan also tells Lilith, "I know you're no good, because neither am I," but she sure is persuasive when she asks Stan to "Please lie down." As Stan unburdens his soul to his coconspirator, and wrestles with issues of guilt and shame, the question remains: What do you want to believe, folks?
"Nightmare Alley" develops some mild sexual tension between Lilith and Stan, especially when she reveals a scar on her chest. But the plot hinges more on Stan's plan to con the wealthy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a former, now reclusive, patient of Lilith's, out of large sums of money. The sessions with Ezra, however, are the flabbiest part of this lengthy film. Stan has to undergo a lie detector test to meet with Ezra, and although he gains the recluse's trust, Ezra's associate, Anderson (Holt McCallany) knows Stan is a phony. Ezra eventually suspects something is hinky, too. His patience for proof wears thin, forcing Stan to ask for Molly's help in his scam. Can Stan's hubris and cunning help him escape from his present situation? What do you want to believe, folks?
There is certainly a twist or two coming, and del Toro delights in letting things unfold in ways that may surprise unsuspecting viewers. But the filmmaker, who cowrote the screenplay with Kim Morgan, doesn't lean hard enough on emotions. The nightmares that haunt Stan are as stock as some of the readings Stan gives his marks, which resists deeper investment in his character.
Less problematic is how the film reveals its denouement early on, and not just when Zeena reads Stan's tarot cards. But knowing what transpires does not necessarily spoil the film's pleasures. Part of the fun of "Nightmare Alley" is in seeing how Stan reacts to his situation. In this regard, Bradley Cooper delivers. He is one part Elmer Gantry, and one part Ned Racine. (That's the William Hurt character in "Body Heat.") Cooper convinces everyone — well, perhaps almost everyone — that he is genuine. But again, what do you want to believe, folks?
The supporting all-star cast is uniformly terrific, with "Carol" costars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara both excellent as the women vying for Stan's soul. In the carnival scenes Willem Dafoe and Toni Collette are appropriately flinty, with David Strathairn putting a poignant spin on Pete. Straithairn really sells his speech about getting "shut eye" — which is when a mentalist believes his own lies. In the last act, Holt McCallany deserves praise for his fine, rugged work as Anderson, while Richard Jenkins is best when Ezra gets angry or weepy.
"Nightmare Alley" is a crafty noir about grifters. Del Toro makes it decidedly more elegant than gritty, which is perhaps his way of luring and seducing viewers. What do you want to believe, folks?
"Nightmare Alley" is in theaters Friday, Dec. 17. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.
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