In Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley,’ the Real Monsters Are All Too Human 

Guillermo del Toro may be famous as a director who dabbles in ghouls and dark fantasy, but he also knows how to find all too human monstrosities. “Nightmare Alley” immerses with its rich sense of place as it also celebrates the noir genre through del Toro’s own, unique style. After winning the Best Picture Oscar in 2017 for his aquatic monster romance “The Shape of Water,” del Toro has gone the same route as other directors before him and decided to give a classic his own spin. The source material is a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, which was filmed in 1947 by Edmund Goulding. That version was originally a box office disappointment now recognized as one of the great film noirs. Guillermo Del Toro is not out to make any direct references. This movie is entirely, entertainingly his own.

The period remains the same, however. It’s the late ‘30s and a drifter named Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds his way to a traveling carnival of the kind where people would pay to watch a “geek” eat a live chicken. Stanton hustles his way into getting a job as part of a psychic act performed by Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), who perfected a code system to fool visitors with husband Pete (David Strathairn), now a despairing alcoholic. Stanton also meets and falls for Molly (Rooney Mara), who does an act involving electrical currents. Enticed by what Zeena’s routine could mean under his control, Stanton convinces her to teach him the code. But a sudden tragedy leads to Stanton and Molly moving away together to the big city, where Stanton refashions himself as a celebrity psychic showman who entertains the rich. As he attracts powerful patrons, Stanton begins to push his act to more daring levels, which worry Molly and could put them in serious danger.

Great noirs endure because they are so true to the condition of any society. There are no clean heroes and characters eventually have to reap what they sow. “Nightmare Alley” is one of those stories like “Elmer Gantry,” fit for any era full of hucksters building grand followings while hiding their true, greedy ambitions. Where del Toro veers the most away from the Goulding adaptation is that he dives right into unabashed melodrama. What Goulding treated with subtlety, del Toro enhances with more thunder and exaggeration. The early carnival scenes could be out of a Stephen King short story with their gothic atmosphere. While Del Toro’s best fantasies, like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” are driven by supernatural forces, what’s more frightening in “Nightmare Alley” is pure human impulse. It’s in the production design and makeup where the director’s knack for morbid curiosities remains visible. Stanton’s first boss, Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), keeps a fetus in a jar with a cyclops eye, and del Toro still loves to linger on shattered faces or blasted out ears during moments of violence.

Like all true noir, “Nightmare Alley” gets its real tension from an exploration of human corruption. Stanton is never an actual psychic. When he meets an intrigued psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) at one of his shows, a love affair begins that also involves using Ritter’s confidential patient profiles to sucker more elites. Money and status are not guards against the allure of the occult or the drive to believe in something more. Soon enough a tycoon named Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) becomes a devotee of Stanton’s and asks for even greater demonstrations, one of which will expose just how morally dead Stanton has become. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen emphasizes these personalities and moods with rich shadows and angles that turn hallways and lobbies into cavernous spaces where you can’t hide. Ritter’s office is on its own a wonder of set design. Snow and rain in this film feel like expressions of what’s going on inside the personas.

Casting is key as well and del Toro has mostly assembled the right faces for this story. Bradley Cooper turns Stanton into a conman who lacks true evil, what he has is the tragedy of having nothing and finding the wrong way to move up in this world. The female casting differs in both positive and odd ways from the 1947 version. Cate Blanchett brings a more malevolent intensity to Lilith than Helen Walker ever could while Rooney Mara is almost too somber all throughout as Molly. In the Goulding film Coleen Gray turned Molly into a truly empathetic, naïve person who truly loves Stanton and wants to be a loyal partner unaware she’s being pulled into an abyss. These may be more cynical times, but Mara’s Molly feels doomed from the beginning, which blunts the heartbreaking aspect of the character. The supporting roles are all wonderful embodiments of noir archetypes. Ron Perlman is Bruno, the massive carnival worker who sees himself as Molly’s protector. Willem Dafoe and Clifton Collins Jr. are carnival veterans shocked by nothing while Holt McCallany is Grindle’s bodyguard, who sees through Stanton but is powerless to stop his boss’s mental seduction.

For Guillermo del Toro, “Nightmare Alley” is a skillfully made turn to more versatile territory. Only in a few moments does the editing rush a bit too much, but overall this is an absorbing thriller best enjoyed for sheer plot. The master of monsters demonstrates he can sustain a good film on those down to earth elements like ambition, greed and lies. When a tarot deck is read in this movie it is all simple foreshadowing, the way a conscience might grab at you when you know where a certain decision will lead. The ending is bold in that it flirts with absolute despair. Stanton’s journey brings him right where he belongs, laughing like a man who realizes the game is over and he just has to accept his fate. Like any good artist of the macabre, del Toro captures how fate can be crueler and scarier than any gargoyle.

Nightmare Alley” releases Dec. 17 in theaters nationwide.