“Nightmare Alley” has Guillermo del Toro‘s signature elements of impeccable production design and immersive feeling of a time and place. This time he’s aiming for a noir-laced world straddling a carnival sideshow mystery, and a con-man noir thriller. Unfortunately, neither side really winds up sticking the landing.
Set in the post-dust bowl world of the 1930s, Stanton Carlisle (played by Bradley Cooper) comes across a traveling carnival where he manages to land a job doing odd jobs. Befrending the troupe’s mentalist, Pete (David Strathairn), and his wife, Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) he starts learning the tricks of the trade. Pete it seems had once had a successful career traveling Europe and America. He had begin to believe his abilities and turned away and stepped back to a simpler life with the carnival, but also diving deep into alcoholism.
Eventually Stanton leaves the carnival, knowing that he can use his skills as a con man in conjunction with the mentalist tricks to create a successful show, taking another performer Molly (Rooney Mara) with him as his partner. Eventually he comes across Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist who believes Stan to be a con man, but knows he can help reach some of her desperate patients who need help finding answers.
There is nothing subtle about the noir trappings of the femme fatale, from Ritter’s self-assuredness to the cut lighting in nearly ever scene she’s in. His willingness to continually push Molly into conning his subjects beyond the nightclub act into seances (called spook shows in the story) winds up spinning his world towards the edge.
At one point, there’s suggestions of things supernatural. Other times it’s just a con game, there’s implications of believing in one’s own powers, but in the end all of those potentials are left laying fallow and the story winds up being a lackluster paint by numbers approach to creating a noir-ish world without any of the satisfaction that one might hope for. In the end there’s little surprises or character revelations that one can’t tell within 5 minutes of meeting any given character, and the only lasting impression is that of disappointment that del Toro wasn’t able to coax more out of the story (from the novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham).
“Nightmare Alley” is rated R, and has a running time of 2 hours and 30 minutes.