Here’s a true story. I once saw Kiss perform at the Allentown Fairgrounds, and before the show, I had plenty of time to wander the midway. You could indulge in rides, games, food and other attractions, including a sideshow. I couldn’t resist, so I paid my admission and entered a tent with all sorts of oddities on display and a few performers. One of them was a scrawny kid who was in a loincloth and covered in dirt as he scrambled around a small cage and growled. I knew that this “boy found in the wild” was a fake, but I went along with the con anyway. I tried to get him to break character, and I swear that he smiled just once before going back to growling and lunging at me. “Don’t get too close,” the others in the tent told me. For a few bucks, I saw some bonus freaks before the freak show that is Kiss on the nearby concert stage. Guillermo del Toro similarly promised an amazing experience with his latest film project set in the world of carnies and hucksters. Much like the sideshow, I was disappointed and only slightly amused. Nightmare Alley suffers from pacing issues as it essentially packs two movies into one.
Cowriter/director del Toro and cowriter Kim Morgan provide another adaptation of the 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel that was previously adapted in 1947 by Edmund Goulding with Tyrone Power in the lead role. Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds his way to a traveling carnival after mysterious events in a prologue that cause him to go on the run. Hired by carnival operator Clem (Willem Dafoe), Stan becomes one of the carnies and does various odd jobs. He works closely with supposed seer Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), who developed an elaborate system for an impressive mentalist act. When Pete dies, Stan runs away from the carnival and shuffles off to Buffalo with “electric girl” Molly (Rooney Mara) where they develop a mentalist act even better than Zeena and Pete’s. Psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) teams up with a greedy Stan to con her clients with information that she obtains by recording their sessions. It all comes to a head when they con wealthy tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a dangerous man with a terrible secret. Split roughly in half between the carnival setting and the action in Buffalo two years later, Nightmare Alley feels like two very different movies that could coexist on their own. However, these halves are narratively and emotionally dependent on each other and can’t be separated any more than a two-headed calf.
I have no complaints about the cast at all. Cooper gets his hands dirty and seems to relish his time as Stan from the highs to the lows. His performance here makes me sad that I didn’t catch his acclaimed run in The Elephant Man. The three femme fatales (Zeena, Molly and Lilith) and the actresses portraying them balance Cooper throughout the movie with different energy. Collette mixes both sweet and sour as Zeena treats Stan like an equal. Molly never seems to rise above an almost subservient role to Stan despite their partnership and relationship. Mara’s performance mirrors the highs and lows of Cooper’s. Blanchett dominates every scene with Cooper in a way that portends their characters’ futures more than Zeena’s tarot cards ever could. Jenkins doesn’t seem to get enough praise for his work, other than perhaps del Toro’s previous film The Shape of Water. Allow me to do that here. I enjoyed him as the bad guy just because of his delivery and presence, and if you want other movies that will give you a Jenkins fix, see The Visitor and The Last Shift.
I love carnivals and fairs, so going in, I thought that would be the complete focus of the movie. It’s no surprise that American Horror Story: Freak Show was one of my favorite seasons of the series. Dafoe plays the sleazy barker and carny well, which serves as a different sort of undesirable man from the one on display in Spider-Man: No Way Home down the hall in another theater at the local multiplex. Ron Perlman doesn’t get enough screen time as the strongman and bouncer Bruno. If the film had kept up my interest after the first half-hour, I’d be more forgiving. The trappings are all there, too, from the muddy fairgrounds to the worn tents and colorful signs. A documentary on the creation of the carnival setting may just be more interesting than the scenes themselves shot there. Keep an eye open for Troy James, perhaps the world’s most amazing contortionist, as the bendable man in some brief carnival moments. James last twisted his body in Malignant.
Some amazing shots and sequences speak to del Toro’s greater directing skills. Unfortunately, style enough doesn’t carry a movie without substance. Stan follows the carnival’s escaped geek into the fun house in a fast-paced chase that would be at home in a horror movie. Later on, Stan flees much like the geek in a neat visual callback. Mara sells the elaborate electric girl stunt that’s equal parts movie magic and theatrical magic. Speaking of magicians, del Toro thanks Teller of Penn & Teller in the credits. I can’t find out anything about Teller’s involvement, but it likely has to do with his familiarity with mentalism and knowledge of their techniques through his decades of experience as well as busting mentalists on Penn & Teller: Fool Us. Also, Cooper doesn’t utter a line of dialogue for a few minutes, so it could be that Teller, who performs silently, advised Cooper on how to convey his character’s thoughts without words. Breathtaking graveyard visuals in a crucial scene made me yearn for more set pieces like that from del Toro.
Sadly, this may be my least favorite of del Toro’s films. I’d still take that over a number of worse experiences in 2021. Rumor has it that he had assembled a 3 ½-hour version. I couldn’t have made it through that without nodding off. Although the first half-hour and the last half-hour kept my interest, that plodding middle hour felt like struggling through quicksand. Although he cowrote the film, del Toro did not create the story, and perhaps that’s the ultimate problem. His other creations like The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth and Cronos never make you check the time. I hope that del Toro bounces back, but until he does, Nightmare Alley gets thrown in the geek pit with the other disappointments of 2021.