It's a feeling worth hanging onto, since this story of a fraudulent psychic making his fortune becomes less entrancing as it continues. Thankfully, that sense of disappointment is partly assuaged by del Toro's weird worlds, which are seductively dark and wondrously detailed.
Photo: Disney/Searchlight Pictures
Bradley Cooper stars as Stan, a man with a hat, a cigarette, and (initially) very few words. He stumbles into a job at a carnival – working alongside Willem Dafoe as the sadistic geek manager Clem, Toni Collette as the crystal-ball psychic Zeena, and Rooney Mara as the sweet and enigmatic ‘Electric Girl’ Molly.
Tamara Deverell’s vast and meticulous production design is so tangible: the carnies' animated stages, the Elephant Man-like cages into which the chicken-eating geeks are thrown, the Daliesque eyes that follow Stan through the House of Mirrors. With del Toro’s regular cinematographer Dan Lausten, each shot contains its own surprising magic.
But once Stan leaves the carnival for the big city, taking Molly along with him, the film struggles to match its opening wonders. He learns from the ageing, alcoholic mentalist Pete (David Strathairn) about the tricks of his trade, and wants to impress thousands. Stan pursues wealth and notoriety, eventually assisted by the absorbing psychologist and predictable femme fatale Lilith (a Lauren Bacallian Cate Blanchett).
Rooney Mara (left) as Molly, the 'Electric Girl'. Photo: Disney/Searchlight Pictures
The film cuts to two years later when Stan and Molly have reached their fame. But why are we blocked from that section of their lives? How did they ascend to this world of white-tie seances? Instead of exploring that much more interesting aspect, the story dives into a devious plan hatched by Stan and Lilith to win the influence of the wealthy and deplorable Judge Gimble (Richard Jenkins), a powerful man with a guilty conscience.
Those disinteresting directions make Nightmare Alley feel at least 30 minutes too long. Stan turns into a toxic, money-hungry male and of course, he blames his father. It’s hard to really care about any of the self-centred, predictable, or tedious characters involved. But like the decadent scenery, the starry and slightly exaggerated performances save the intrigue.
It’s a wonderful movie to look at, del Toro’s penchant for the fantastically picturesque showing no signs of weathering. Behind every nightmarish alley, there’s another stimulating cacophony of illustrations in which everyone can indulge. But the story drags, on and on, with a finale that – despite being intently structured from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel – serves as a clumsily cracked mirror of the beginning, trying to connect the loose and sporadic themes. Nightmare Alley is a well-dressed but middling effort.
Nightmare Alley will be in cinemas on Friday 21 January.
|What||Nightmare Alley review|
21 Jan 22 – 21 Jan 23, IN CINEMAS
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