Roll up, roll up to the carnival freakshow: See the world’s tiniest man, the electric woman, the mind reader who can contact your dead relatives, and the geek, a depraved creature who tears the head off chickens and sucks out their blood. “Man or beast, you decide,” the carnival barker (Willem Dafoe) says to the gobsmacked crowd.
This is the 1940s, when times were tough, audiences were gullible and carnivals exploited all manner of “deformity” and weakness. Into the mix wanders Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a grifter with a violent past and an eye on the main chance who quickly learns all the tricks and leans into his natural talent for reading a mark.
The geek, Stanton is told, is played by a series of down-and-out drunks who are conned into giving a show in exchange for rum on tap and a razor blade with which to fake the chicken stunt. It’s just temporary, they’re told, when they sign up.
One of the bright spots at this shady fairground is Toni Collette as Zeena, the mystical seer whose telepathy is guided by clever language signposting from her husband, when he’s not too drunk. Stanton smells weakness and starts circling while wooing the electric woman, Molly (Rooney Mara).
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is a daring and imaginative filmmaker whose work includes Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), set at the close of the Spanish civil war, and The Shape of Water, a creature fantasy that won multiple 2018 Oscars. Nightmare Alley is based on a 1946 book by William Lindsay Gresham that explored the fantasy, illusions, resilience and sleazy depths of carnival life. Right up del Toro’s alley, you might think. And yet despite the setting, it risks coming across as such heavily stylised film noir that the air is sucked from the screen.
The plot brightens a little with the arrival of Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a glamorous psychologist with seductive red lipstick and an immaculate art deco office. She sizes up Stanton and goes to work just as his lust for money is pushing him beyond cabaret-show mentalism and into the more dangerous terrain of the occult. He has abandoned the safer confines of the fairground and is playing with the big end of town. When he reels in a big industrialist with a murky history with women, the stakes have never been higher.
The actors all do their bit – Cooper is dull and unlikeable from the start, which was hopefully his intention – and some of the shots in alleys and flurries of snow are magnificently filmed. But for all the fine cast, the glamour and intrigue, it feels like a film noir set piece that has had its blood sucked out by a geek.
Nightmare Alley is showing in cinemas now.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.