Review: Nightmare Alley

Bradley Cooper is not the most popular choice for a leading role in a noir film. His smile is charming and warm, which makes it unlikely that he will ever be a good actor in dark noir films. However, in Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare AlleyCooper’s stylish remake of a 1947 noir is perfectly plausible. Cooper is dressed in period-appropriate suits, fedoras, and other period clothing.

Stanton Carlisle’s character is devious carnival barker and dreams of doing even worse things. We see right away that Stan flees the effects of a particularly horrible crime he has committed. Trudging down a backwoods road, he comes upon a traveling carnival filled with human oddities, among them a “snake man,” an “electric girl,” and a geek—the carnival specialist hired to do repulsive things like bite the heads off live chickens. “How can anyone get this low?” Stan wonders. Stan will soon discover the truth. The carnival’s strange midway, which is also known as Nightmare Alley to the inhabitants of the city, will soon be revealed by the visitor.

Dan Laustsen, the same man who shot Oscar-winning del Toro movie, has beautifully captured this film. Water ShapeThis is a picture of a woman who finds a new, noir-like tone outside in soft falling snow. In its concern with texture—gleaming deco walls and polished marble hallways—the picture is in some sense about the moody pleasures of noir itself: that vaguely defined cinematic and literary genre that is still sending out tendrils of moral rot some 80 years after its heyday. As Del Toro shows with his interpretation of an old scene from the movie, a lot has happened in those 80 years. In 1947, the carnival geek wasn’t seen but was placed in a pit under the stage lip where he was fed a few live chickens. Horror fanboy Del Toro has no interest in such restraint—he gives us the full-feathered rip-and-dribble experience.

The film has some other disturbing moments, but the movie never turns into a simple horror flick. The film’s most alarming moments are a result of the evil motives of some of its characters. These include Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter (a manipulative psychologist in whose hands Carlisle fell), and Richard Jenkins as Ezra Grindle who is one Ritter’s nutcase patients. Rooney Mara’s Molly Cahill (the melancholy, electric girl), Toni Collette, David Strathairn and Toni Collette, who are husband and wife mentalists, offer to teach Carlisle their tricks. With some help from Dr. Ritter it looks like Stan and Molly may find some sort of relief from their world of mistrust and malice. It is obvious to noir lovers that this isn’t the case.