An exquisite stage is set by Guillermo del Toro for his much-hyped follow-up to best picture winner The Shape of Water, a big, starry adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley. It has become something of a passion project for a director whose career has been defined by his passions, a self-declared cineaste who spends more time tweeting about other people’s work than his own. It’s his most strikingly beautiful film yet, a velvety, precisely styled noir with the year’s most impressively stacked cast (two Oscar winners and six nominees, all bringing their A game) but its sleek shell is sadly as duplicitous as its untrustworthy conman protagonist, blinding us with dazzle but leaving us tricked.
Of Del Toro’s previous films, the closest it resembles is 2015’s Crimson Peak, a similarly lavish yet similarly soulless attempt to add prestige to pulp, unable to fully deliver on either a high or low level. Nightmare Alley is marginally better but still a curious misfire, overlong and overstretched, working only in all-too-brief bursts, a stumble after the giddy heights of The Shape of Water.
Bradley Cooper stars as Stan, a mysterious drifter who attaches himself to a group of carnies, learning their ways while also learning who he is and what he might be capable of. His knack for charismatic theatricality makes him a nifty faux-psychic, a skill that takes him from the carnival to the city with the help of his new girlfriend, co-conspirator and on-stage assistant Molly (Rooney Mara). But when he encounters an inquisitive and well-connected psychologist, Lilith (Cate Blanchett), he starts to plot out an even bigger con.
From Nathan Johnson’s grand, menacing score to an almost supernaturally sinister sky forever on the brink of a storm, Nightmare Alley is not a film of half-measures. Visually, for the most part, such excess works. Del Toro is a master world-builder and his lurid, often grotesque, vision of the past is as alluring as ever, with much credit owed to Tamara Deverell’s extravagant and intricate production design. But the more compelling the film becomes aesthetically, the more I found myself disappointed by the script’s inability to grip with quite as much skill. What should have been a tight, murky little thriller becomes bloated Oscar bait, Del Toro struggling to justify the self-indulgent 140-minute length, his source material failing to provide him with the heft he seems to think it has. The locations end up feeling more developed and magnetic than the characters, none of whom have enough depth for a film of this length, despite a high-powered cast doing the very most.
Cooper delves back into the slippery amorality that originally made him famous in films such as Wedding Crashers and My Little Eye with one of his most interesting performances of late, but at 46, he feels too old for the role of someone still figuring out who he really is and what he should be doing with his life (Tyrone Power was 33 in the original adaptation). His relationship with a miscast Mara is rushed and barely etched and, instead, he conjures up more of a spark with an underused Toni Collette, who’s having fun as a fake medium. Blanchett is good at vamping it up as a femme fatale, and her pastiche-adjacent period schtick works well here even if her character is sorely lacking. There are also strong, small turns for Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn and Willem Dafoe, giving more than the material often deserves.
The film’s two distinct halves, the first set within the world of the carnival and the second in the city, feel a little too distinct, as if we’re watching a miniseries, a novelistic structure that Del Toro can’t successfully replicate on the big screen. At times the slow-burn pace ends up feeling like a slog, especially when the teasing plot unravels into very little of anything, a pretty straightforward film masquerading as something labyrinthine. There are moments that stick – Cooper’s initial meet with Blanchett, Collette’s on-stage con gone wrong, a tense lie detector set-piece – but they’re surrounded by too much extraneous waffle, as if the film needed a more brutal edit, far removed from del Toro’s wants and needs.
The finale suddenly indulges in his love of visceral gore, which is effectively gnarly but a little too jarringly out-of-place, and the big reveal is in fact a very small one, a surprise to no one except the characters. Then, after an underwhelming confrontation, Nightmare Alley ends on a high, or rather a low, with a devastatingly bleak last scene, something so effectively, nightmarishly haunting that it almost makes up for the plod of what came before it. It’s one of the year’s best scenes at the end of one of the year’s most disappointing films.