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There’s Nothing Behind the Curtain in ‘Nightmare Alley’

Guillermo del Toro has a knack for combining spectacle with compelling themes, but his latest often fails on both counts

Searchlight Pictures/Ringer illustration

In Nightmare Alley, a carnival barker played by Willem Dafoe entices crowds with the promise of a mysterious attraction whose very existence testifies to some unnatural identity crisis. “Is he man, or beast?” asks the old carny, over and over again.

Because Nightmare Alley is directed by Guillermo del Toro, we know that the answer is both. For the past 30 years, no filmmaker has spent more time humanizing the inhuman; the title of his traveling museum exhibition “At Home With Monsters” could be taken as his artistic mantra. In his best Hollywood blockbusters—Blade II, Hellboy, and parts of Pacific Rim—del Toro imagines characters at an intersection between the everyday and the fantastic; in both of his Oscar-winning hits—2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth and 2017’s surprise Best Picture victor The Shape of Water—the Mexican director deploys the thematic tropes and visual vocabulary of creature features to try to say something profound about matters of psychology, ideology and, especially, morality. Like E.T. and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein before him, the mute, amphibious outsider in The Shape of Water isn’t so much malevolent as misunderstood. In a crowd-pleasing final act, he suffers for our sins before swimming off to live happily ever after with his new girlfriend while, above water, the tumults and injustices of the 1960s unfold.

The Shape of Water juxtaposes broad, shameless melodrama with the gory severity of a graphic novel and a little sprinkling of the perverse. For the vast majority of critics, this formula has proved magically effective over time. With the possible exception of Bong Joon-ho, del Toro is contemporary cinema’s reigning purveyor of A-list B movies—a brand name you can trust. But for those of us who don’t totally buy del Toro’s traveling show, each new movie has the feeling of the same old hustle—of clichés being passed off as archetypes. Man or beast? Nah. More like: auteur or poseur? What do we think, ladies and gentlemen?

A deluxe, big-budget remake of one of the more enjoyably scuzzy 1940s noirs ever released by a major studio, Nightmare Alley isn’t likely to change anybody’s mind about its creator. For fans, it’s chockablock with the kind of elaborate bric-a-brac that makes del Toro seem like a visionary, even though he locates visual excitement more in what he’s shooting than how he shoots it (unlike Bong Joon-ho). Skeptics, meanwhile, will note that for all its supposed grotesquery, Nightmare Alley has an almost antiseptically perfect aesthetic—not just glossy but gold-plated, as if the production designers had melted down their Shape of Water Oscar statuettes as building material. (Don’t worry: They’ll win again for their work here and keep those mantles nice and full.)

This fissure between form and content is one of the strange paradoxes of del Toro’s now deeply gentrified form of genre filmmaking. Like Tim Burton and Peter Jackson, his on-screen worlds are richly detailed—the storyboarded gorgeousness of a perfectionist who doesn’t like to waste even an inch of screen space. And yet while del Toro’s movies are often luxuriously tactile, they’re rarely fully immersive or convincing. They’re more like jeweled display cases to be admired than real environments to be inhabited. Watching the Gothic romance Crimson Peak, with its dazzling yet surpassingly ersatz haunted-house sets, recalls the apocryphal joke about the Broadway critic who panned a show by writing that you “can’t hum the scenery.”

It’s telling that the only truly unforgettable image in Nightmare Alley is also the starkest: Sometimes, even a filmmaker as ornate as del Toro understands that less is more. Before we’ve even gotten our bearings, we’re suddenly in a bare, empty room as a man drags what looks like a swaddled-up corpse across a wooden floor before depositing it in a hole and tossing a lit match into the makeshift open grave. The arsonist is Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), and even without knowing his relationship to the deceased—or whether he had anything to do with how s/he got that way—it’s obvious that he’s looking for a way out. Del Toro obliges him by panning toward an open door, leading out away from the flames and towards a flat, heartland infinity whose lyricism is recontextualized by the inferno in the foreground: out of the fire, perhaps, but still plenty of opportunity to get burned.

There’s a lot of promise in this opening, much of which is bound up in the gritty irresistibility of writer William Lindsay Gresham’s premise, which suggests that for a man with nothing to lose, the childhood fantasy of running away from home (possibly after burning it down) and joining the circus constitutes a vision of fulfillment. Both the novel and initial film adaptation (the latter directed by Edmund Goulding) luxuriate in the decrepit, illicit pleasures of mid-20th century traveling shows, which offered cash-strapped Depression-era audiences access to figures even more desperate and downtrodden than themselves.

Case in point: The subject of Clem’s (Dafoe) “man or beast” spiel is a nameless drifter who serves as the show’s hybrid slave-slash-mascot—a geek on a leash, kept in a state of agitated, abject terror and sustained by the odd live chicken for dinner. Here, del Toro knowingly evokes the exploitation-movie atmosphere of Tod Browning’s 1932 cult classic Freaks, as well as some of the melancholy of David Lynch’s Elephant Man, although with a heavier sense of cosmic irony. There’s so much nudging going on about the kinds of catastrophes that have to happen to turn a man into a blood-sucking husk that even the most oblivious viewer may suspect that Stan Carlisle is getting a preview of his future. There’s pleasure in this kind of foreshadowing, but it can also make a movie seem self-satisfied with its own impending cleverness.

The plot of Nightmare Alley is pure postwar pulp-picaresque, with Stan serving as a tour guide, first through the seamy side of show business and then the equally blighted terrain of high-society entertainment. In the first half of the story he’s eager, earnest and adept, using his big body to cart around heavy equipment and wrangling Clem’s geek after he overdoses on opium-laced alcohol. What Clem recognizes in Stan is a man with nothing to lose and a willingness to learn. Swiftly, the newcomer absorbs tricks of the trade from his big-top pals, including a mind-reading act staged by a pair of married mentalists, Pete (David Strathairn) and Zeena (Toni Collette), who use a private, coded language to approximate clairvoyance. They’re both pros, and their shared advice to Stan is to never let a patron believe that it’s possible to actually commune with the dead lest simple, profitable deception give way to morbid obsession. Stan weighs their input, and then, following a series of unfortunate—and fatal—events that suggest some kind of existential curse, ignores it. He reinvents himself far from the fairground as a standing-room-only entertainer named the Great Stanton, with another carnival alum Molly (Rooney Mara) in tow as his assistant and live-in lover.

When Christopher Nolan had Hugh Jackman’s milquetoast magician deem himself the Great Danton in The Prestige, it was a sly homage to Nightmare Alley and its narrative of showbiz self-immolation. Both movies take the modern relationship between superstition and skepticism as their subject; the difference is that while Nolan’s brilliant thriller unfolds as a game of one-upmanship between evenly matched rivals, Cooper’s Stan is playing chicken only with himself. He’s a guy born under a bad sign trying to keep hold on a run of good luck. Newly ensconced in a show in Chicago, he bamboozles well-heeled guests who are only too happy to be fooled.

His senses dulled by a success that comes too easily, Stan doesn’t really perk up until faced with the savvy, perceptive, high-rolling psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who tries and fails to expose his methods in front of an audience but proves more manipulative behind closed doors. It’s Lilith—and her powers of psychiatric persuasion—who convinces Stan to put on “spook shows” for wealthy clients willing to pay for supernatural absolution: exactly what Pete and Zeena said not to do. Urbane, sophisticated, and frequently splayed statuesquely across furniture in the mode of a 1940s femme fatale, Lilith tempts Stan in ways that the outwardly exotic but ultimately provincial Molly could never even dream; her resistance to Stan’s schemes marks the difference between a carny-by-trade and a bullshit artist who’s started to believe his own shtick.

Once Lilith and Stan become partners, Nightmare Alley shifts into thriller mode, and it’s hard to describe the film—or to describe what’s wrong with it—without treading into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that del Toro and his cowriter Kim Morgan make some alterations to the plotline of the original story that suggest either a misunderstanding of their material—unlikely, since Morgan literally wrote the Criterion Collection essay for Goulding’s film—or a lack of faith in their audience, which, given del Toro’s tendency to sentimentalize his fables, is more likely. The flip side to del Toro’s sympathy for monsters is that he tends to have a pretty banal sense of good and evil, which always exist in counterpoint in his cinema rather than mingled together ambiguously.

What theoretically makes the original text of Nightmare Alley so compelling—and so horrific as a noir—is the way it forces our identification with a character whose moral compass has become demagnetized. In Goulding’s film, Tyrone Power’s matinee-idol handsomeness becomes obscene as Stan makes consistently selfish and self-destructive decisions. Cooper, who’s a smart enough actor to play against his looks, is game to make Stan similarly repulsive—a true antihero who gets in over his head. But a couple of thrown-in details in a subplot involving a wealthy, deep-pocketed mark (Richard Jenkins) end up recontextualizing Stan’s worst actions as a form of vigilante justice against a deserving target—at which point even del Toro’s trademark heaps of body horror and gore can’t obviate the sense of an artist hedging his bets.

In theory, the contrast between del Toro’s abiding, Spielbergian humanism and his R-rated sadism—the blood lust that saw Michael Shannon dragging Michael Stuhlbarg around by the gash in his cheek in The Shape of Water—should result in tough, pugnacious moviemaking, or at least an unsettling viewing experience. But Nightmare Alley is so outwardly accomplished and frictionless that even the splatter of brains fails to register. Instead of conveying Depression-era despair and possibly connecting those feelings to something in our own fraught, polarized political moment, the film fetishizes it. As ever, del Toro leans into his own period decor so emphatically that any potentially timeless or universal implications get obscured in the process.

The trade-off for all of del Toro and Morgan’s carefully engineered ironies about Stan and his circular trajectory is that they’ve made a movie that can really be read only one way. In a truly nihilist vintage noir like Detour or Kiss of Death—or even a convincingly mean-spirited blockbuster like The Prestige—it can feel like you’re being let in on some dark, unforgivable secret about human frailty and futility, like the cruelty of the universe is being unveiled in real time. But Nightmare Alley is too focused on the veil. The designer blindfold that Stan wears as the Great Stanton becomes an accidental emblem for a filmmaker who isn’t seeing his ideas clearly, and whose work is finally considerably less than meets the eye.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.