Since first seeing his giant-bug movie Mimic I’ve been a fan of director Guillermo del Toro. That film got me to seek out his stellar debut Cronos and then follow his career going forward. His love of dark fantasy and horror material has made him a hard sell for some moviegoers, but thanks to masterpieces like Pan’s Labyrinth and Best Picture Oscar winner The Shape of Water, he has finally become a bit of a household name.
His latest movie, Nightmare Alley, is based on a bleak 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, and follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man who stumbles upon a carnival while on the run from his past. He picks up work doing odd jobs for apparent owner Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) and quickly ingratiates himself to clairvoyant Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), while also falling in love with performer Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara). After suggesting an improvement to Molly’s act and learning the craft from Zeena and Pete, he begins moving up the ranks and ultimately is able to branch out on his own, becoming a huge hit. This catches the attention of psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) however, who offers her help with a potential mark in exchange for him sitting for a session. But what goes up must come down, and Stanton’s pride may get the better of him.
The sprawling cast is excellent and never less than compelling to watch. Bradley Cooper exudes the right blend of dashing charisma and scheming desperation to sell his part and Cate Blanchett is perfect as the icy femme fatale. The nature of the story may preclude it from featuring del Toro’s usual fantastic creature designs, but there is more than enough of his directorial flair throughout to compensate. It won’t take a genius to figure out where things are going and the lesson within is a fairly simple one, but fans of the filmmaker (like me) will still be glued to the screen. It’s not del Toro’s best film, but it’s still an enthralling noir, filled with sumptuous design, masterful performances, and just the right amount of tragedy. ★★★★
Rated R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity, and language.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor