Festooned with gargoyles, Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” gets its game on in the sleazoid world of 1930s back-road carnivals. There, amid worn tents and garishly painted signs, a psychic reads gullible minds and a contortionist twists like a soft pretzel. The whole thing seems like fertile ground for del Toro, who’s drawn to the stranger, spookier corners of the imagination. So when a carnival barker promises a crowd a good show it is easy to imagine del Toro nodding along as he murmurs, Step right this way, folks.
You get why Stan (Bradley Cooper) looks all agog when he wanders in. As a filmmaker, del Toro likes to lay an overflowing table, and there’s a lot to take in at the carnival, like the pickled baby, baptized Cyclops Boy; and a poor soul called the Geek, an ostensible wild man who bites the heads off chickens. It’s icky — that’s the idea. Stan has empty pockets and a mysterious past, and while others might run screaming, he soon joins the show’s roster of creepy and putatively charming charlatans. He proves a natural hustler and, as the story evolves, his grifting grows more sophisticated, lucrative and dangerous.
You might have seen Tyrone Power navigating a similarly shadowy setup in the 1947 noir of the same title, directed by Edmund Goulding. Like the earlier movie, del Toro’s is based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham, a desperate, pitiless book filled with exotic slang and steeped in the soured milk of human unkindness. Written by del Toro and Kim Morgan, the new adaptation hews more faithfully to the novel, partly because it’s not constrained by Hollywood self-censorship. But fealty isn’t always a productive strategy, and while the first film greatly tempers the book’s shocks, it doesn’t sentimentalize the source material, as this one does.
Shortly after Stan becomes a carny, he begins cycling through women, beginning with a clairvoyant (Toni Collette) whose broken-down husband (David Strathairn) once had a successful mentalist act. The act uses a code that allows the performers to guess, more or less accurately, the answers to audience questions. It’s a perfect fit for an opportunist, which is a role that nicely suits Cooper, an actor who can let you see his characters’ internal whirring. Stan and another love interest (Rooney Mara) leave the carnival, taking the mentalist act on the nightclub circuit. They make bank and also meet a smooth number (Cate Blanchett) who steps out of a different, less engaging movie.
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