I spent a good deal of Nightmare Alley’s interminable 150 minutes thinking about unproduced Guillermo del Toro projects (a list so long it has its own Wikipedia page).
At a glance, a period noir about carnival grifters seems squarely in del Toro’s wheelhouse. Maybe that’s the problem. Partly it’s the assemblage of auteur quirks on display like so many jarred oddities that feel wasted here. Partly it’s the nagging suspicion that Nightmare Alley might not actually be about anything beyond its lavish art direction, and the mind has a tendency to wander.
To wit: Enoch, a three-eyed infant suspended in formaldehyde, presiding over mankind’s cyclical denigration and cruelty in the form of a midwestern sideshow attraction. In the Bible, Enoch’s pre-Flood life spans 365 years. Recall that del Toro was at some point working with Hideo Kojima on a Silent Hill game, its demo featuring an endless hallway and a talking Eraserhead fetus. It matters that Nightmare Alley takes pains to situate itself deep in the misery of the Great Depression and on the eve of America’s entry into WWII. It never ends, until it does. I wonder what Silent Hills would have been like.
Alas, del Toro’s follow-up to Best Picture winner The Shape of Water is, for all the meticulously detailed head trauma (chicken or otherwise), a fairly safe adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name, previously adapted in 1947 by Edmund Goulding. The 1947 version is a nihilistic, nasty piece of business charting a topography of American hucksterism from organized religion to sideshow attractions to the psychiatric trade. This one’s about alcoholism and its attendant ills. Between the things in jars and Ron Perlman scenery chewing (admittedly delightful), it feels an awful lot like del Toro’s playing the hits. I felt a pang of sadness watching Perlman’s aging strongman drop his giant novelty dumbbells and exit the stage, defeated. I wish we’d gotten a Hellboy III, too.
Bradley Cooper plays haunted cipher Stanton, a lost soul in a nation of lost Depression-era souls. Stanton burns down his childhood home (and with it, he mistakenly hopes, any lingering memories of it) and takes up with a traveling carnival. In the original, Stanton has a familiarity with Evangelical sermonizing that makes him a disturbingly effective grifter and manipulator. This would have been transgressive in the early Cold War years as American popular culture promoted Protestant, nuclear family consensus. His silver tongue is mysteriously jettisoned in the update, however, and Cooper goes the first twenty or so minutes sans dialogue, Daniel Plainview style. This results in awkwardly paced scenes in which, rather than fast-talking his way up the carnie ladder so as to foreground his inevitable hubris and downfall, Stanton meanders through what reads like a series of NPC encounters in search of a main quest.
It’s in these early scenes that we’re introduced to the Geek, the film’s ur-lost soul who, for the price of one quarter, Ozzy-Osbourne’s CGI chickens for the amusement of gawkers. An offscreen harbinger of doom in the Production-Code-enforced 1940s, the update takes care to show the Geek at work with all the lurid detail of an EC Comics cover. Dispensing with any sense of buildup or suspense, del Toro goes ahead and perfunctorily checks this box no more than ten minutes into the picture. This is what we came for, no? Shades of Funny Games scolding for something I neither asked for nor particularly wanted in the first place.
The best parts of Nightmare Alley recall not the original, but rather the pre-Code shocker Freaks (1932). In that movie, director Tod Browning spent a lot of downtime depicting sideshow performers as boring, regular-ass people (in-and-of-itself an exploitative sideshow act, perhaps. The performers reportedly weren’t happy with the finished product. The movie’s called Freaks, after all). An uncommented upon spider-lady trapdoor act suggests the kind of detailed worldbuilding del Toro excelled at in stuff like Hellboy II and Pacific Rim. I like the part when “Major Mosquito” (Mark Povinelli) instructs Stanton not to kneel when talking to him. There’s an empathy running through Nightmare Alley ill-suited to a movie as meanspirited as Nightmare Alley.
Stanton masters the art of the sham psychic and becomes a medium for the rich and powerful, conjuring dead loved ones with ease because everyone is on some level as broken and alone as he is. This eventually puts him in the orbit of psychologist femme fatale Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who wields Freud as destructively as Stanton sizes up a mark, because when you really think about it, man, what’s the difference? Given the lingering stigma against therapy and resistance to seeking mental health care, I have to wonder whether reducing analysts to predatory charlatans is the best use of the movie’s already bloated runtime. This wouldn’t have happened in del Toro’s The Wind in the Willows.
Maybe I should count my blessings. Regardless of what might have been, Nightmare Alley is a handsomely produced, R-rated, big-budget creepshow, and at this point that’s something to celebrate. It also means it’s destined to go the way of The Last Duel and Last Night in Soho as it quietly evaporates from cinemas and any hint of public consciousness.
Never bring a geek to a Spider-Man fight.