The wrong way to watch Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of the 1946 novel Nightmare Alley is by reading the book first. Because then you’ll be one of those tedious “the book was better…!” people. Instead, just watch it as the elaborate period piece it is, none the wiser as to the missed opportunities and pulled punches. In fact, you should probably stop reading here, because I made the mistake of reading the book so this is a review by one of those tedious “the book was better…!” people.
On its face, del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a movie about carnies that turns into a movie about a grifter that decides it had meant to be a psychological thriller all along. We’re eased into the world of carnivals when Bradley Cooper rides into town on a bus. We know he’s Running From A Troubled Past because in the last scene we saw him strolling away from a burning house, which is movie shorthand for someone having a troubled past. So he joins the carnival.
Author William Lindsay Gresham established the world of the carnival with muscular bursts of prose and unexpected internal monologues.
Dust when it was dry. Mud when it was rainy. Swearing, steaming, sweating, scheming, bribing, bellowing, cheating, the carny went its way. It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns — lights and noise and the chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the ferris wheel, to see the wild man who fondles those reptiles as a mother would fondle her babes. Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice-cream spoons to show where it had been.
The tattoo’ed sailor weighs whether it might be worth raping the teenage girl who just joined the troup. “Goddamn, that Molly kid’s got legs like a racehorse,” he muses. “Maybe I could give her one jump and then blow the show. Jesus, it would be worth it to get into that.” You won’t find guys like him employed at Mr. Dark’s Carnival Emporium. These aren’t the kind of fancifully evil people you find in a childhood fantasy or a Bradbury novel. They’re weak, cowardly, and ultimately common. Something venal this way comes.
Similarly, the magic in Gresham’s novel isn’t at all magical. It’s all data, as sure as the ones and zeroes that flowed through the offices of Cambridge Analytica. “It was not genius at all,” the lead character discovers as he watches the fortune teller’s mind reading act. “Zeena knew people. But people were a lot alike. What you told one you could tell nine out of ten. And there was one out of five that would believe everything you told them and would say yes to anything when you asked them if it was correct because they were the kind of marks that can’t say no.”
In Gresham’s novel, this technique is honed for the carnival, with a series of codes carefully guarded by Zeena and Joe Plasky, a husband-and-wife team with no ambitions beyond the carnival’s next stop. But our newcomer, protagonist Stanton Carlisle, discovers the system. Joe Plasky has meticulously documented it in a handwritten notebook he loans Carlisle. Plasky, whose decency is a foil to Carlisle’s ruthlessness, writes about it almost apologetically.
“Human nature is the same everywhere. All have the same troubles. They are worried. Can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of. Works with question-answering act. Think of things most people are afraid of and hit them right where they live. Health, Wealth, Love. And Travel and Success. They’re all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature.”
This was 1946. Cold readings have only gotten better. The stakes have only gotten higher. Social media and right-wing politics have turned the fortune teller’s schtick into a science. This used to be the hallmark of small-time traveling shucksters, but today it’s the dominant tactic for crassly effective political power plays. Once carnies skulked on the outskirts of town, moving on after discreetly tapping the local rubes. Now they’re running the second largest political party in the United States with an aim to bleed it dry and even burn it all down if it comes to that. Nightmare Alley is an eerily prescient novel about the art of manipulation for personal gain. Gresham wrote it as a morality play. Today, we read it from inside its own second act, unsure how it will end.
Whereas the book can take its time as the carnival travels around the country and eventually goes by the wayside, the movie’s shifts are abrupt and unconvincing. Before you know it, Cooper’s character has left the carnival to become a mentalist act in high-society circles. But then he’s left that life behind to pursue high-stakes grifts. And all the while, for some reason that I can’t fathom, these characters wrestle with the morality of deceiving people.
In fact, in one astonishingly clumsy scene, del Toro demonstrates that deceit is bad by having an ancillary character inexplicably escalate to murder and suicide. It undercuts whatever point del Toro thinks he’s making about spiritual fakery. The murder/suicide is the result of someone being promised they’ll be reunited with their dead son. This suggests belief in an afterlife — the hope of being reuinted with lost loved ones — leads people to devalue their here-and-now lives (in a 2017 movie called The Discovery, scientific proof of an afterlife leads to mass suicides around the world). Yet for thousands of years, religions have been bringing people comfort on that front, telling them they’ll be reunited with loved ones. Regardless of whether it’s true or not, I’m not aware that this has caused people to summarily murder/suicide each other. And when they do, it tends to make news because it’s out of character. You’ve heard of Jim Jones, Aum Shinrikyo, and Heaven’s Gate for a reason, and not because they were in the news alongside scam artists who got busted trying to trick people out of their money.
I suspect del Toro simply doesn’t have the stomach for William Lindsey Gresham’s hard-boiled pulp. Nightmare Alley reads like something Jim Thompson adjacent, cruel, raw, festering with human weakness and depravity. It’s a rogue’s gallery of vulgar people in a tangle of fucking, fighting, drinking, and lying to each other, except sometimes they wear silly outfits, do card tricks, and practice new fangled gimmicks like psychological analysis.
But as del Toro has demonstrated over the years, he prefers the black-and-white morality of fairy tales and the lyricism of fables. Gresham’s abusive silver-tongued flim-flam man has no place in del Toro’s adoringly staged period piece with its perfectly cast cast of loveable carnies. Who wouldn’t want to hit the road with Willem Defoe, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Tony Collette, and now Bradley Cooper? They’re an appealing bunch, relaxed, having fun, good natured, with nary a care in the world, making people smile with their picaresque mischief. Gresham’s carnies were parasites, hungry enough to drink blood but smart enough to know how much they could get away with drinking. But del Toro’s carnies are movie stars in subdued lighting, artfully standing in the shadows of their own fedoras. He even morphs Carlisle into a nerd smitten by the wonder of it all. Cooper’s Carlisle draws pictures of people that would be worthy of any comic book. He designs and builds a stage act with moving parts and smoke effects and fancy dials. This Stanton Carlisle isn’t just a carney; he’s a fan, a stand-in for del Toro’s own child-like wonder at the things he makes movies about.
Bradley Cooper cuts a fine figure as someone cosplaying the cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune. But in a moving picture with sound, he’s missing the cunning Carlisle demands. One of my favorite Bradley Cooper performances is his Between Two Ferns episode with Hangover co-star Zach Galifianakis. They obviously are very comfortable with each other, and the running joke is that Cooper is proud of his career and happy to natter on about whatever movie he’s promoting. When Galifianakis dings him for “[skating] on your looks alone”, it plays like a very palpable hit. I have no idea whether Cooper is actually insecure about this, but in that moment between two professional celebrities, Cooper convincingly plays someone who didn’t expect this, and didn’t want it, and is pained by it. Another one of my favorite performances is his tiny role in a horror movie called Case 39, where he plays a child psychologist who meets his match in the form of a demon-possessed girl. She floors him when she sums him up with a single word: facile. The point I’m dancing around is that Cooper is great as a dupe, and not so great as a duper. The arc of Nightmare Alley and the depths of its main character are beyond his reach.
(For a fascinating modern version of Stanton Carlisle, I cannot recommend Sean Baker’s stunning Red Rocket strongly enough. Especially the political subtext, which fits perfectly with William Lindsey Gresham’s observations on deceit and hope. I’d actually go so far as to say Red Rocket — which has absolutely nothing to do with Nightmare Alley — is a better adaptation of the novel than del Toro’s movie.)
I have no idea why someone as cold and severe as Rooney Mara was cast as Molly, the clueless ingenue undone by Carlisle’s lies. Toni Collette and Cate Blanchett are a treat, as usual, although I wish their roles had been written half as lavishly as their costumes were designed. Blanchett’s character, a mysterious psychologist from a time when psychology was as exotic as the occult, ends up more of a plot twist than a foil to Carlisle. At least Richard Jenkins arrives for a couple of bright shining moments, much like he did for Shape of Water.
It wasn’t until I was writing this review that I learned Nightmare Alley had previously been made into a movie way back in 1947, immediately after the book was published. It was a Tyrone Power picture specifically made to gruff up his image and have him play an anti-hero. I can’t imagine 1947 Hollywood could do justice to the book’s grit and cynicism, much less its moral depravity. Sadly, neither could 2022 Hollywood.