Guillermo del Toro blew me away a couple years ago with his amazing fantasy tale “The Shape of Water”. It’s one of my favorite films of the past decade, so I was very excited to see his new film NIGHTMARE ALLEY.
Packed with terrific acting and del Toro’s unique visual style, the tale he tells here is a much more bleak story. Think “Body Heat” with a generous dose of HBO’s “Carnivale” series and you begin to get a feel for the unique blend of genres that await.
As the film opens (in a beautifully shot scene that reminds me more of Terrence Malick than del Toro) we meet Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). We see a body, a fire and Carlisle walking away into a late 1930’s town in the middle of nowhere. He’s soon pulled into a traveling freak show/carnival loaded with del Toro’s patented mix of characters.
Willem Dafoe is excellent as Clem Hoatley, the ringmaster of the misfits. Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is Molly, sideshow Electric Girl, Ron Perlman (Hellboy) is Bruno the enforcer and protector of Molly and Mark Povinelli is The Major, small in stature but large in influence.
Rounding out the crew with their tarot reading bathhouse next door are Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her longtime alcoholic partner in deception Pete, played to perfection by the always great David Strathairn.
Del Toro always shows you enough of the game to let you know how the con artists fool the masses, but there’s always a slight door open with Zeena and Pete to just how deep their powers go.
Carlisle is a master student of the grifters, soaking up all their talents and even adding to their stable. He fits in all too well but is haunted by that burning farmhouse and the events that opened the film, which are slowly revealed to us with flashes of more detail that offer more depth.
When the opportunity arises for Carlisle and Molly to elevate their game (in a great scene with the local sheriff that I’ll leave for you to discover) they and del Toro move the second half of the film forward two years. It’s a complete shift in scenery. The dust bowl and ramshackle traveling freak show are gone and we move to the finest hotels and mansions of a snowy Midwest metropolis. It feels like two different films.
Molly and Stanton are dressed to the nines. They have a polished mentalist act that elevates Zeena & Pete’s game to the pro leagues.
At one show, the beautiful Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, excellent) interrupts their performance and challenges Stanton to tell her what’s in her clutch purse. It’s a test. Watching Stanton pass it is fascinating. But the doctor is just a gate keeper to a very famous judge, who becomes a conduit to one of the richest men in America, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).
Jenkins is as excellent here as he was in “Shape of Water”, but he’s the opposite of the kindly Giles that he played in that film. He’s a very powerful man with some very dark problems that only Stanton, with his ability to communicate with spirits, can solve.
I’ll say no more about the last 45 minutes. You have to discover its complicated secrets and very tangled web on your own. But like Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat” you realize that con games run deep, run long and often double back on themselves.
The entire cast is flawless. Jenkins, Blanchett and Bradley Cooper are all fantastic.
Jet black film noir, peppered with explosive violence, tension and sexual intrigue, this is an adult thriller that’s a slow burn. It’s not what I expected going in and doesn’t live in the same colorful Hollywood fantasy world that “Shape of Water” filled out so perfectly.
This is a much more sinister, unkind place del Toro’s playing in this time. One of our best filmmakers, he pulls you down to the very depths of NIGHTMARE ALLEY until all you can hear is that final laughter from a soul that can’t sink any lower.
Happy ending? No.
Terrific filmmaking. Yes.
Del Toro and his cast get an appreciative A.