I’ve been a big fan of Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water) since he first made his mark with Pan’s Labyrinth back in 2006. He’s a master at creating fantasy-filled narratives in visually striking settings. Nightmare Alley is lacking the fantasy that propelled his previous work. It tries to make up for that with one of the most gorgeous production designs in ages. And Bradley Cooper turns in an awards worth performance as conman Stanton Carlisle who rises from carnival side show mindreader to high society psychic, alongside an all-star cast that also includes Cate Blanchett, Toni Colette, Rooney Mara, and Willem Dafoe. But for all that, it ends up being a whole lot of flash that never pays off.

The film is an adaptation of a 1946 noir classic novel that was adapted first in 1947 and starred Tyrone Power. It’s a rags to riches to rags tale set first in the seedy world of a traveling carnival. Stan takes a job as a carny just after burning down his house. It’s mostly a job of convenience. But he  uses his charm to get the mindreader (Colette) to teach him the tricks of the trade. He also falls for Molly the Electric Girl (Mara) and the two of them leave the carny life behind for a more respectable life. In the big city, Stan becomes a sensation as psychic showman “The Great Stanton” with Molly as his assistant.

But psychologist and femme fatale Dr. Lilith Ritter (Blanchett) knows it’s a fraud and tries but fails to publicly unmask him. She’s later hired to check him out for a judge who wants to use him to talk to his dead son and it’s then that she sees how their partnership could be beneficial to them both. She and Stan team up to scam her elite clientele and one very powerful man in particular with the promise of a huge payout. They also begin a torrid affair.

But this being noir, you know it’s not going to have a happy ending.  And Stan’s downfall is some of Cooper’s best work. But most of the film is filled with characters you aren’t really invested in. It’s a whole lot of style and very little substance. Nightmare Alley is is one of those films where you’re waiting for it to coalesce. Sadly, it never does. And at two and half hours, it’s a big letdown from a director I expect so much more from.

In theaters now. 


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