There have been plenty of so-called neo-noirs – dark-hued thrillers whose shadowy cityscapes, compromised antiheroes and brooding femme fatales are given a resolutely modern edge. Think Blade Runner, Seven or Mulholland Drive. But what happens when you haul all the trappings of a genre rooted in post-war cynicism and lay them out raw for modern-day moviegoers?
You end up with something like Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, a heady, fleeting pleasure that prioritises craft over moral complexity, with themes of class friction and fraudulent spirituality that would once have landed like haymakers packing much less punch today.
A re-adaptation of a novel that has already graced the screen in a 1947 noir starring Tyrone Power, del Toro’s version is an immaculately designed morality tale that flatters to deceive. It follows scheming loner Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) into a gig at a travelling fair that offers midwesterners distractions from the worries of war and poverty.
The fast-thinking drifter soon finds plenty of opportunities to advance amid the miscellany of tricksy acts and sleights-of-hand. Booze is ever-present, though he never touches a drop, conscious that resisting its destructive power lends him an immediate advantage over his rivals.
Bradley Cooper’s huckster is a ratbag with chutzpah from the outset
Into the role Power made his own comes Cooper, a different kind of actor with a very different performance. There’s more technique in Cooper’s turn, and his modulations of Carlisle’s seedy arc, from downplayed and taciturn, to suavely persuasive, to desperate and dissolute, are expertly executed. There’s at least one lingering, haunting close-up that the 1947 version can’t match.
But unlike Power, who was younger yet past his prime when he provided the first Nightmare Alley with its clammy, uncertain antihero, Cooper feels too assured as a scheming mentalist who is a ratbag with chutzpah from the outset. There’s no sense of a man caught between his better instincts and a nose for an opportunity, a crucial beat in the ‘47 version, just someone whose conscience is DOA. It’s best exemplified in a crucial fork in the road – when Carlisle accidentally sees off his alcoholic mentor (David Strathairn) with industrial-strength liquor – that is frustratingly brushed past.
The carnival scenes are great, though. Tracking shots sweep through a world of chicken-biting geeks, human spiders, jaded boozers and amped-up hawkers. It’s all given a delicious air of the grotesque by del Toro and his production designer Tamara Deverell. Terrific character actors like Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette and Ron Perlman bring this coterie to life as a strange but fiercely loyal surrogate family into which Carlisle weasels his way.
Then a leap forward by two years shifts things to the big city, with Carlisle and his runaway girlfriend (Rooney Mara) setting up with a mind-reading act for high rollers in posh hotels and echoey art deco rooms. Carlisle’s eye for an ever-more profitable grift soon has him acting as a medium to the super-wealthy, offering them a spiritual connection to children they lost in the war.
The raw transgressiveness of the enterprise would surely have resonated much more strongly with the original film’s audience, a generation who grew up with spiritualism and war dead. Here, del Toro throws in a jarring subplot involving Mary Steenburgen’s grieving mother, whose sense of loss has curdled into something bitter and self-destructive.
The carnival scenes are given a delicious air of the grotesque by del Toro
The film's second half also introduces Cate Blanchett’s purring psychologist as the femme fatale of the piece, makes room for Mara’s conflicted moll, and carves out a terrific storyline involving Richard Jenkins’s trusting-but-scary millionaire and his intimidating adjutant (Holt McCallany). There’s a juicy sting in the tail too.
But there’s no one in the middle of all this to ride along with and no sense of moral conflict – of bad decisions made reluctantly because there are no better options on the table. Those are the ingredients that elevate the best noirs because they speak directly to their audiences’ darker, grasping ids. Here, you find yourself relishing Carlisle’s slide into the abyss a little too readily.
In US theaters now. Out in Australia Jan 20, UK Jan 21 and Singapore Jan 27.