‘Nightmare Alley’ Film Review: Guillermo del Toro’s Remake Looks Sumptuous But Rings Hollow

The Depression-era art direction is on point, but the noir intensity is missing

Nightmare Alley
Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures

This review of “Nightmare Alley” was first published on Dec. 1.

From a rain-soaked carnival midway to a glossy, Art Deco therapist’s office, everything in Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” looks gorgeous. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot going on under the art direction.

Remaking the 1947 noir classic (the director and Kim Morgan adapt the novel by William Lindsay Gresham), del Toro doesn’t indicate that he knows what to do with the material. He’s clearly an admirer of the original — one of those movies too dark and downbeat to be a hit in its moment, only to emerge as a cult favorite as the decades passed — but he doesn’t seem to be rethinking or even repeating the material. The results play more like an empty impersonation; while the remake occasionally delivers R-rated gore, sex, or language, the older one still registers as the more shocking, more intense film.

Perhaps the director’s deepest pangs of nostalgia are for the idea of unseemly entertainment itself. The new “Nightmare Alley” seems most alive on the carnival midway, amid the contortionists, the phony spiritualists, and the geek (more on the latter in a minute). Much like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez in “Grindhouse,” del Toro appears to long for an earlier era, when his brand of horror show would have gotten him banned in Boston or excoriated from the pulpit. Instead, in an era where drive-in movies are now global box-office champs, he wins Academy Awards rather than getting run out of town on a rail.

The film offers a heck of an introduction to Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), as we see him bury a corpse under the floorboards of a house before setting the entire edifice ablaze. He hops a bus, and at the end of the line encounters a small-time carnival run by Clem (Willem Dafoe). A night’s work turns into a permanent job when Stan helps Clem find the Geek — a broken-down alcoholic reduced to biting the heads of chickens in exchange for booze and a dry place to sleep — when the sideshow attraction escapes his cage.

Stan ingratiates himself with the carnival folk (he’s one of those guys who’s constantly ingratiating), becoming close with fortune-teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn), a once-successful magician who’s lost himself to the bottle. Zeena and Pete teach him their old mentalist act, in which a blindfolded Pete could “see” objects Zeena was holding, based on her specific verbal cues. It’s one thing to fleece the rubes with a mind-reading trick, Pete admonishes Stan, but doing the “spooky show” — pretending to commune with the dead — can lead only to tragedy.

After Stan seduces the virginal Molly (Rooney Mara), they eventually strike out on their own, doing the mentalist routine to great acclaim at upscale nightclubs. One night, Stan crosses paths with therapist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), and despite her elegant mien, she’s a grifter even more ruthless than he is. Before long, she and Stan are collaborating on a “spooky show” of their own, using her rich client’s secrets, as an increasingly greedy and ambitious Stan forgets Pete’s warning.

The original “Nightmare Alley” was a breakthrough role for Tyrone Power; he had to fight with studio bosses for his shot at playing an unsympathetic role that would demonstrate his depth as an actor. But where Power was callous and conniving, Cooper brings Stan’s duplicity constantly to the surface, so it’s hard to buy that he’s pulling one over on anyone when it’s always so obvious that he’s putting on an act. Blanchett’s take on Lilith never quite lands, either; she’s certainly channeling any number of other hard-boiled, cold-blooded, silkily venomous film noir dames (Audrey Totter in particular comes to mind), but she never inhabits an actual character.

As the most convincing carnies in the cast, Dafoe and Collette come off the best. He skillfully hides a dark soul behind a huckster’s charm, while she conveys Zeena’s theatricality and carnality with equal ease. (Not a lot of contemporary actresses could easily fill the shoes of the great Joan Blondell, who played the character in 1947, but Collette manages it with grace.)

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen (“The Shape of Water”) takes us from the lows to the highs to the depths with Stan, and he clearly revels in the opportunity to recreate old-school noir in muted colors. Another frequent del Toro collaborator, costumer Luis Sequeira, similarly makes the most of the opportunity: Stan goes from fake shirt-front to gaudy neckties, never completely hiding the con-man underneath, while a scene in which Lilith makes a rare revelation about her past hinges upon the design of her dress.

For a potent remake, check out Steven Spielberg’s take on “West Side Story”; for a can’t-turn-your-eyes-away performance as a manipulative con artist, don’t miss Simon Rex’s turn in “Red Rocket.” Guillermo del Toro has made and will no doubt continue to make some of this generation’s most exciting and visionary fantasies, but in a rare misstep, this “Nightmare Alley” is a dead end.

“Nightmare Alley” opens in US theaters Dec. 17.