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Review: There's nothing medium about Guillermo del Toro's tremendous 'Nightmare Alley'

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Bradley Cooper stars as an ambitious carny with a penchant for manipulating marks in the psychological thriller "Nightmare Alley."

Guillermo del Toro won an Oscar for turning a guppy into a Playgirl centerfold. No shame, if that was your thing, but I’m a little more revved up by watching Barbara Stanwyck check into Cate Blanchett's body like it’s a motel in “Nightmare Alley,” del Toro’s delicious new noir fable. 

In movies like “The Shape of Water” (the one with the hot fish) and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the Mexican auteur burrowed into supernatural nightmares and turned them inside out. His latest film, which is out in theaters this week, almost pointedly eschews the creature feature game. Instead, del Toro sticks an electrode into the silvery corpse of a Turner Classic Movies marathon and cranks up the juice.  

A cautionary tale of greed versus survival that skulks around under the specter of horrors both unknowable and mundane, “Nightmare Alley” is the big score that fans of golden age cinema have been waiting for.  

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The film is based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1940s novel of the same name; Tyrone Power starred in a previous film adaptation. In a dark world of murder and mock mysticism, drifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, never better) falls in with a traveling carnival run by a crooked barker (Willem Dafoe). He learns the kayfabe of the big top — the fortune telling scam artistry of medium Zeena and her alcoholic husband (Toni Collette and David Strathairn), the shocking secrets of Molly the electric girl (Rooney Mara) and, crucially, the way to break a man into becoming a chicken-eating “geek.” 

To riff on the conventional wisdom of an episode of “30 Rock,” you should never follow a carny to a second location, and Molly disobeys this advice to strike out with Stanton as a duo act. They bring a slick medium schtick to swanky dinner theaters around the country, and soon they've traded circus wagons for penthouses. But, this being noir, Stanton soon strays at the sight of fabulously glamorous psychologist Lillian Ritter (played by Blanchett with throaty cackles, like the evil twin of her character in "Carol").

They team up to fleece the rich, powerful and grieving. It doesn’t take a psychic to know that it’s easier to make new dead people than to channel the old ones. 

With such a colorful concept, you might ask, “Hey, what moment sticks with you the most in ‘Nightmare Alley’?” To which I would whisper reverently, as if you had walked late into midnight mass, “Yes.” 

Stan (Bradley Cooper) makes a very dangerous alliance with an enigmatic psychoanalyst (Cate Blanchett) in Guillermo del Toro's "Nightmare Alley."

It’s a femme fatale festival in here. Cooper gets naked and washes up in Collette’s rented clawfoot bathtub; they make out and I gasp.  

Cate Blanchett, wearing an immaculately tailored skirt suit and with her hair styled into a Roosevelt-era butter sculpture, communicates both lust and rage toward Cooper in a voice that suggests she took elocution lessons from a jaguar; I need to be carried out of the theater by someone trained in CPR.  

And then "Nightmare Alley" delights with an ending so brutally, deliciously grim that you’ll need to rewatch the whole thing again as soon as possible? Hey, the theater industry needs your support, and I had already vacated my seat to receive immediate medical attention.

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It’s not just period-picture flash. Del Toro’s giving the people what they want with “Nightmare Alley,” no matter who those people are. The story’s mix of hard-boiled crime and real interpersonal drama, as embodied by the tragic hubris of one Stanton Carlisle, is never far from the center. I mean, don't get it wrong, the film’s approach to style is canny. Opulent art deco sets carved from gold and marble and spooky retro carnival trappings take their places in these familiar cinematic shadows.

But del Toro, cinematographer Dan Laustsen and production designer Tamara Deverell transform familiar feelings into fairytale phantoms. The whole movie seems to glow. The director is obviously a fan of the source material and its ilk. This being a del Toro joint, you know that there’s a certain amount of magic to be expected, even if it’s not “real” sorcery. Turns out, when a filmmaker obsessed with monsters and ghost stories takes on a pulp thriller, you get equal parts Tim Burton and Billy Wilder. (This is a compliment.) You’re just as likely to witness a spectral maiden bleeding in the impossibly blue snow as you are the kind of fadeouts that used to transport Veronica Lake from scene to scene. 

Clem (Willem Dafoe, bottom) introduces Stan (Bradley Cooper) to the carny life in "Nightmare Alley."

Like any good fable, “Nightmare Alley” is rich with ancient wisdom, too. “Folks’ll pay good money just to feel better,” Dafoe’s carnival boss says early on. More quotables for your throw pillows: It ain’t hope if it’s a lie, people are desperate to tell you who they are, and sometimes the cracks within a person become a hollow. 

The tortoise and the hare have nothing on the homicidal hunk and the scheming shrink. Aesop also didn’t have nearly as many double entendres. Ah, well. His loss. 

'Nightmare Alley'

Grade: A

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: R for some sexual content, nudity, language, strong/bloody violence

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Watch: In theaters