“Nightmare Alley” is being marketed as a horror movie, but it is anything but. Rather, it’s a compellingly lurid story about carnies and con artists, two subjects I can’t get enough of.
Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, a man on the run who comes across a carnival and tries to hide out by blending in with its offbeat characters. He’s discovered by Clem (Willem Dafoe), who oversees the personnel and invites Stanton to work the grounds. Soon Stanton is caught up in the behind-the-scenes activity of the carnival, from its rides to its sideshow performers, including the geek — a man in a cage whose act involves biting the head off a chicken.
Stanton also meets Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Straitharn), who do a mentalism act. Intrigued, Stanton convinces them to teach him the tricks of their con, and soon learns how to do cold readings and manipulate people into believing he can really read their minds and hear from their dead relatives. He also falls for and convinces fellow carny Molly (Rooney Mara) to leave the carnival behind to hit the road and do a mentalism act of their own.
Before long, they have a successful show running in Chicago, attracting the city’s elite to witness Stanton’s abilities. At one performance, he is challenged by Lilith (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist out to expose him. Instead, he turns the tables on her and persuades her to work with him to con some of her wealthy, powerful clients using secrets she has learned during therapy.
Director and co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro keeps all of these balls in the air with crisp direction and the requisite film noir mood lighting, not to mention terrific performances by his extended cast, which also includes Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, and Tim Blake Nelson. Del Toro gets the carny sensibilities just right, with gorgeous art direction and production design perfectly evoking the atmosphere of these traveling troupes of the World War II era. In fact, I would have liked to spend more time with the freaks and oddballs who populated that world.
Considering the settings, the proper word to describe “Nightmare Alley” is “entrancing.” Cooper and Blanchett prove yet again they are among the most talented actors of their generation, while double Oscar winner del Toro has finally made a movie I can highly recommend.
I give “Nightmare Alley” an 8.5 out of 10. Opens today in theaters. (Update 2/6/22…now streaming on HBO Max)