Guillermo Del Toro has always had a special place in my heart. His legendary and most beloved film, Pan’s Labyrinth, was one of the first times I took notice of recurrent themes and visual cues that the director moved from film to film. From his love and respect for classic monsters to his deep knowledge of gothic romance and literature, the man has always had that charming enthusiasm of a kid and paired it nicely with adult emotion. Nightmare Alley, his latest offering, further displays his knowledge of storytelling and classic film by remaking a noir he’s loved since childhood.
Whether or not you love Nightmare Alley depends on your love of the director and his recurrent patterns. Gone are the days when he would make a parody of human hatred, monsters, and brutalists while frightening creatures more represented Earth Power and mysticism. Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is perhaps the first of his protagonists to openly exist as a dark figure with no magic behind him. Magic is, in fact, on trial in Del Toro’s new post-Oscar era. The drifter is silent for the first ten-to-fifteen minutes of the film, burning down a house and finding his way to the carnival that will begin his adventure. Sights, sounds, and blood are cacophonous all around him and he’s drawn to an exhibit featuring a “geek” (a word used to reference a person that is desperate for drugs and alcohol and bites the heads off of chickens in exchange), run by Clem Hoatley (Willem DaFoe). Joining the carnival, he will eventually find his way into the home of Pete (David Strathaim) and Zeena (Toni Collette) and will begin to learn the art of mentalism. Falling in love with young Molly (Rooney Mara), he begins to dream of bringing the act to the big city and make a fortune.
That setup is enough to go on and the narrative weaves through years and eras, eventually landing at the feet of a scene-stealing Cate Blanchett, but it feels spread a bit thin for me. Del Toro has always been a visually impressive director, one that tied his characters to their gothic worlds by colors and patterns, and his eye for style has always leaned away from traditional Hollywood storytelling. In Nightmare Alley he’s trying his hand at a remake for the first time. The funny thing is, the director gets so lost in recreating the tone of that black-and-white noir film with his camera that he forgets to throw in some of his traditional flairs. This is an experiment from the director, one that puts him out of his comfort zone and into the realm of a pure thriller. Sometimes it works and at others it slowly becomes less interesting. Del Toro’s work is never fully dull, but the steady hand that knew when to spike and when to lull leaned more heavily on the latter this time.
This is still a wonderful film, one that makes bold decisions with costuming (Bradley Cooper was meant to look sort of greasy on film), casting, and practical sets that pay off dividends. Nathan Johnson’s score is a showstopper, dreadful and atmospheric with its piano and string riffs bouncing around like a noir-hip-hop album.
We’re living in a post-Oscar world as Del Toro fans. His desire to constantly work on different angles and types of stories will keep me coming around. Nightmare Alley is a step down from some of his previous work, but upper-middle-tier Del Toro is still a wonderful time with a director that loves the movies more than you could imagine.
Nightmare Alley is currently in theatres.