Nightmare Alley review: Guillermo del Toro’s tale of glossy grifters will keep you awake at night

·2-min read
 (20th Century Studios)
(20th Century Studios)

UK fans of crisp, Gothic noir won’t need to have their arms twisted re this offering from Guillermo del Toro. His adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel has aroused so much interest that a black and white version is now enjoying a limited release in the States (I haven’t seen it, but the screenshots are scrumptious). Casual film-goers, however, may need more persuading. Check out the runtime. Yep, that’s one hell of a long alley.

In chronicling the rise of seething prairie boy, Stan (Bradley Cooper), del Toro spends a lot of time with carnival folk. The Mexican genius behind Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water has obviously been influenced by Tod Browning’s Freaks. But where that mind-warping masterpiece was low budget and had no stars, this one cost $60m and is crammed with big names.

Stan allows himself to be seduced by seen-it-all “psychic” Zeena (Toni Collette), learns the tricks of the trade from her meek, mentalist husband, Pete (David Strathairn), beguiles a beautiful waif, Molly (Rooney Mara), and soaks up the hateful, gloating patter of MC Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe; doing justice to that wonderfully evocative moniker).

Rooney Mara as Molly and Bradley Cooper as Stan (20th Century Studios)
Rooney Mara as Molly and Bradley Cooper as Stan (20th Century Studios)

Stan himself is a possibly unhinged and utterly ruthless chameleon. But will the shape-shifter come out on top when he collides with sleek New York psychiatrist Lilith (Cate Blanchett)?

Thanks to Cooper’s splendid performance, Stan’s weird brand of agitation instantly gets under our skin. Blanchett, too, is memorable. Lilith may look like a cliché (she’s a dead ringer for The Big Sleep’s Vivian Rutledge), but the electricity in her voice, when she finally gets Stan on the couch, is one of a kind.

Willem Dafoe, left, as Clem Hoatley (20th Century Studios)
Willem Dafoe, left, as Clem Hoatley (20th Century Studios)

The huge flaw, here, is the wordy, shallow script. Molly is two dimensional, while a key character, who should be as scary as Chinatown’s Noah Cross, seems merely tetchy. The talented actor playing him is miscast but, more importantly, this supposedly cunning individual keeps making implausibly dumb decisions. Which is extra distracting because, as Stan et al keep reminding us, convincing details are crucial when spinning a tall tale.

Still, the very last scene (all too easy to swallow) is a doozy. It literally gave me nightmares and, weeks later, the memory of Stan’s laugh still makes me feel short of breath. The journey taken by del Toro may be convoluted. Where he ends up, though, is a bad dream come true.

140mins, 15. In cinemas from January 21

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