The movies of Guillermo del Toro are filled with gorgeous images. Even nightmarish creatures, dilapidated mansions, and flooded apartments are presented in stunningly lit and composed shots. Still, all such beauty can be more than a bit distracting, particularly in a story that’s supposed to be nasty, sordid, and gritty like his new film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Adapted from Lindsay William Gresham’s 1946 novel, the story follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a bum journeying from sleazy carnival laborer to rich mentalist conning the upper echelons of Manhattan society. It’s a tale filled with the seamy and immoral, yet Del Toro presents it all far too sleekly. It’s pulp fiction at odds with the millions spent on sumptuous production values.
It’s a shame too because the film is well-acted, the script adaptation by del Toro and Kim Morgan is smart and nasty, and the source material has a lot to say about fame, exploitation, and the rich who seem to always get away with everything. But del Toro loves to compose shots within an inch of their life. His camera work is smooth and serpentine, yet he never seems to allow for anything ragged or random. It’s all too tight, too composed, too perfect.
The film starts with what should be a horrible image – Carlisle dropping a wrapped course in the basement of a home and setting the structure ablaze. Unfortunately, del Toro places every vestibule of fire in the scene so exact, it seems more like Martha Stewart than arson. From there, the homeless man ends up at a carnival where leering, carnival barker Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) hires him out of pity. Carlisle ends up performing tough manual labor, breaking down tents in the rain and lugging about bric-a-brac.
Soon enough though, Carlisle is laboring elsewhere, specifically in the parlor of married Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) where he trysts with her behind the back of her drunk hubby (David Strathairn). Then he joins her tent act where gullible audiences are separated from their money and Carlisle falls in love with show biz.
Along the way, Carlisle falls for the comely sideshow performer Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) and manages to steal her away from the arms of Bruno the strongman (Ron Perlman). In a matter of weeks, Carlisle’s path has led from murder to adultery to confidence games, yet Del Toro doesn’t make nearly enough of Carlisle’s strident lack of ethics. He’s too busy making Cooper look gorgeous even when he’s drenched by the rain and muck.
In the second act, Carlisle and Molly leave the carnival and find success conning the rich. Their success draws the attention of the well-heeled psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and she wants to partner with Carlisle to get in on the action. Still, as important as that plot point is, del Toro can’t help but over art direct Ritter’s office where they finally meet. The polished mahogany walls, expensive furnishings, chrome fixtures, and lighting that would make George Hurrell weep – it’s all too distracting.
It’s a shame too, as the actors, particularly Cooper and Richard Jenkins as a high-end heavy, are terrific. The dialogue has a real snap to it as well. And Nathan Johnson’s score keeps you on edge throughout. There isn’t a better-looking film this year, but it’s far too pretty for a story where every character is pretty scummy.
The “rags to riches” arc is compelling from start to finish, and the commentary on our nation’s caste system is snarkily spot on. Such assets would shine through even more if every image didn’t gleam quite as beautifully. Del Toro just won’t allow anything to be ugly, not even a character’s bloody path along a building’s hallway. His NIGHTMARE ALLEY is less a bad dream and more of a well-appointed house of horrors. But that wasn’t Gresham’s gritty intent.