‘Nightmare Alley’ is heavy on panache, light on subtlety

Scene from film Nightmare Alley
Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 Oscars stunner, “The Shape of Water,” is careful to bind content to form, fomenting a fluidity that, at least in part, washes over contrived bits of dialogue and heavy-handed allusions. His latest feature, “Nightmare Alley,” a meandering, bejeweled carnival ride of rich noir aesthetics and devious hijinks, endeavors to do the same. Yet, like its predecessor, the film can’t quite find its footing.

An undisputed master of thematic synchronicity across his filmography, del Toro seeks out narratives that lend themselves to tidy, no-crumbs-left-behind interpretations that he meticulously delineates for his viewers. One facet of this synchronicity is his fixation on a man-monster false dichotomy — an element present in “Nightmare Alley” that eschews del Toro’s usual magical realist flair.

Contrarily, the monster in “Nightmare Alley” is notably detached from the realm of the supernatural. In fact, it’s not really a monster at all — it’s a man. This man, a circus geek under the punitive supervision of part-time liquor supplier and full-time slimeball Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), is a readily replaceable attraction whose only purpose is to satiate the perversions of the crowd. The geek’s presumably sordid but inscrutable backstory is irrelevant; his depravity and limited shelf life are all that matter. 

Del Toro’s films often agitate the waters of expansive power structures. In “The Shape of Water,” it was Cold War-era hyper-militarization. In “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it was Francoism. While there is certainly a political slant to “Nightmare Alley,” it’s more oblique. It is evident that del Toro has shifted his lens from exterior battles to interior ones. Unfortunately, the results of this shift emerge half-baked.

Enter Stan Carslile (Bradley Cooper,) a man whose psyche has been eroded by a vaguely contoured traumatic upbringing. Daddy issues? Alcoholism? The details are both fuzzy and scant. In need of money, Stan falls under the apprenticeship of two affable circus employees: the effervescent, psychic Zeena (Toni Collette) and wizened alcoholic Pete (David Strathairn). Stan fastidiously absorbs the mechanics of mentalism, sans their accompanying ethics. 

Before flying the coop, Stan cajoles ingenue Molly (Rooney Mara) into accompanying him. Armed with a keen ability to bend language to their whim and dredge up repressed childhood trauma, the duo soon reach the swanky smoke-filled clubs that mark the big leagues of wily pageantry. Pete and Zeena’s portentous warnings about mentalism’s ethical slippery slope now reduced to a mere echo, Stan falls in with slinky shrink Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who is just as morally compromised as himself.

Cooper delivers a lackluster performance that is outshined by Blanchett’s emergence as a Lady Macbeth-esque manipulative psychiatrist in the second act, which kicks the film back into gear. She is poised and assertive, eager to probe Stan’s repressed pathos. Ritter embodies an elusively evil persona, constantly blurring the boundaries of who is in control until they break down altogether. “So how’s this going to work lady?” Stan inquires during their first meeting. “Doctor,” she icily corrects him. Cue the eyeroll.

Intermittently subject to hackneyed dialogue, “Nightmare Alley” — despite the connotation of the “alley” embedded within its title — is deceptively clear. The twists and turns of the film’s narrative are less sinuous than they are direct, visible from a mile away. Nuance is often squandered by del Toro’s insatiable need to be understood. 

Fortunately, the moral tenor del Toro engineers in “Nightmare Alley” is compelling. When its themes emerge unobstructed by vapid liberal verbiage or flat character development, the film shines. Similarly, del Toro is at his best when he returns to the scaled up sources of conflict his stories are often tethered to. For example, his commentary about alcoholism and the grift embedded within many religious organizations is airtight. 

With an inflated run time of two and a half hours, it’s inevitable that some of del Toro’s themes would resonate. Unfortunately, many of them fall short of the target in “Nightmare Alley.”

Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].