Feel-bad movies come around once in a blue moon, movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, auteur spectacles that revel in bad or questionable behavior by fascinating protagonists. Guillermo Del Toro’s latest gothic noir is another such film, exploring the depths of depravity and soulessness among American con artists who travel our country swindling the poor and simple-minded. Bradley Cooper is sublime as one of said con artists, initially an ambitious transient trying to escape his sordid past, eventually a man beset by his own demons. He stumbles upon work as a carny at a traveling circus and, through mentoring by an older trickster (David Strathairn), a slinky psychic (Toni Collette), and their sleazy ringleader (Willem Dafoe), eventually elbows his way into his own act as a “clairevoyant,” where he and an assistant work the crowd into believing him capable of mental abilities such as reading their mind or communicating with the dead. He charms circus family member Molly (Rooney Mara) into joining him on the road, on a journey to take his act cross-country, much to the chagrin of her surrogate older brother (Ron Perlman) and others. They end up crossing paths with a femme fatale shrink (Cate Blanchett), a grieving mother (Mary Steenburgen), and a wealthy recluse and widow (Richard Jenkins) riddled with guilt and money to spare. Where it’s headed is somewhat predictable and occasionally lacking the pizzazz to render new again such despicable happenings, the tale of a taudry man willing to do anything to get ahead, and doing so by conning the pitiful and vulnerable.
Del Toro wants Alley to be a classic American tale of greed through the lens of modern hucksterism. He mostly succeeds, his technical form and way with actors elevating what might otherwise have been a hollow or familiar exercise in the evils of man and money. “Is he man or beast?” Dafoe cries when describing one of their attractions, a drunken, animalistic “geek” they keep in a cage via booze, drugs, and scraps of food. He’s really talking about Cooper’s Stanton, formerly a child abused, now a man traumatized. And like many traumatized, he becomes worse than what made him. Cooper’s performance, and the film itself, peaks in the picture’s final moments, when he finally realizes what he’s made of. Though its script is sometimes left wanting, Del Toro is at the top of his game here, currying favor with our eyes through sheer force of beauty. From exquisite production design to colorful high-contrast photography, not to mention top-of-the-line makeup and prosthetics when he decides to dabble in his patented gore, Nightmare Alley is a gem look at and listen to, its score by Nathan Johnson expertly evoking the noir thrillers of old, such as the film’s 1947 predecessor. At a time when hucksters like Alex Jones and Donald Trump are able to swindle millions from millions, it’s easy to see why Guillermo thought it pertinent to remake a little-seen seventy-four year-old film. Nightmare Alley is the feel-bad movie of the holiday season.