Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Guillermo Del Toro has spent his career reassembling genre elements before audiences eyes until they forget what kind of movie they are watching and simply get washed away in his worlds. Whether he’s always successful in this matter is another discussion but Del Toro deserves credit for taking on the role of cinematic contortionist and imbuing genre film with a sense of arthouse grandeur. His latest, Nightmare Alley has many of the trappings of his previous work: the emphatic and punctual violence remains as visceral as ever, his characters are hollow sketches which he is constantly distracting the viewer from with visual flair, and though his penchant for grotesquery is surprisingly muted given the set of a carnival, this has little to do with why this film is so boring and plain. The problem is not the absence or overabundance of any aspects of Del Toro’s previous work, it’s the dreary performances shambling their way through a vapid script that frustrates more often than it excites.
Del Toro’s film is an adaption of the original book of the same name, however, for film noir lovers, many will be familiar with Edmound Goulding’s version, which cast in the after years of WWII captured it’s seedy male protagonist with a sad sympathy, the story requires a decay of dignity within it’s main character and the devastation of Nightmare Alley’s conclusion is that it implies that all society has left men to do is become monsters. Del Toro does not update the source material and instead chooses to replicate history in dreamy, vivid hues. The set design, costumes, camera and art department deserve to be lauded for the moody, evocative and mysterious visuals. While this replicated slice of Americana is detailed and breathing, the performances by contrast are stiff and far too morose for their own good. Bradley Cooper’s performance either gives too much or too little in any given scene, he’s either leaving you wanting more or wishing he would subdue his severity and engage in something more nuanced. He depends far too much on the dynamic between ambiguity and intensity; instead of a radically polarized dichotomy of conflicted internal psychology we are treated to an actor who feels he never really knows his character and attempts to blind the audience with bullshit.
The method in which Del Toro does updates the source material is in approach rather than aesthetics or in locale. His Nightmare Alley resembles the 90’s thrillers of David Fincher and his exhausting sci-fi successor in the early 2000’s, Christopher Nolan, more than it does a Howards Hawks or Nicolas Ray film. This film is all about the twist to Del Toro, much like Fincher and Nolan he laboriously spends the entire film setting up the reveal. Some will call it “methodical”, but, perhaps echoing the carnivalesque themes of the film, this is all a trick, the film, clunky and contrived, stumbles through each and every one of it’s tricks waiting for you to be surprised, like your kid cousin who just got a magic set for Christmas bumbling and stumbling through each trick as you smile and nod dotingly to assure them to keep trudging along even if you know exactly where the ride is going.
Predictability is not a bad thing, tragedy and comedy rely on expectation in order for sorrow and laughs, however Del Toro never articulates the story with enough zest and enthusiasm for this film to be read as a super bleak, pitch black comedy and his juvenile dramatic palette which for him consistently amounts to eruptions of brutality and senseless violence fail to imbue Nightmare Alley with any meaningful or substantive tragic edge. Watching this man’s descent into physical degradation and spiritual isolation should’ve been inevitable, painful and most importantly in terms of how the original film made this story work: systemic. Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley condemns it’s main character, almost taking a vile enjoyment of his suffering, not in a detached comedic nihilism but rather because Del Toro is simply uninterested in interrogating anything beyond this character of impenetrable simplicity who seems almost entirely removed from any economic, political or sociological context. Goulding’s version of this character is achingly specific to a post-war milieu whereas Del Toro’s feels like an everyman only because the film feels afraid of what it might find should it search too deeply into these characters’ interiority.