The Academy awarded Guillermo del Toro Best Picture for a movie about romancing a fish, so he’s thrown Hollywood a bone with Nightmare Alley, a noir morality play about the façade of entertainment. It’s the kind of thing the industry has loved since, say, 1947, when 20th Century Fox first adapted the story to film. The studio was bought out in the decades since then, so Nightmare Alley is technically a Disney movie now—perhaps that’s one reason why it feels so safe.
The story is replete with noir trademarks: shady characters, chiaroscuro, a femme fatale, and the impossible burden of the American dream on the fragile human psyche. Bradley Cooper plays Stan Carlisle, a drifter who joins the carnival after a vague, past tragedy leaves him alone and destitute. At first just glad to have a job, Stan is later taken by the lucrative potential of illusions-as-entertainment and teaches himself a psychic act, growing increasingly unconcerned with the ethics of exploiting patrons to make money. Things backfire, as you could probably guess—it’s standard morality play stuff. But although the bones are there, the flesh is a little sexless.
And not just literally (though yes, the sultriness of the story is oddly tame here). Dan Laustsen’s luscious, hyperrealist cinematography goes a long way toward giving the movie character, but del Toro and Kim Morgan’s screenplay is conversely by the numbers. It’s most alluring in the opening hour, when the narrative still feels pregnant with possibility. It’s a bit predictable—there’s a whole rack of Chekov’s guns—but the subtext puts on quite the show. The film’s tragedy and horror don’t go without political allusions, and the recurring symbol of the human eye as silent judge puts The Great Gatsby to shame. All-in performances from the likes of Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, and David Strathairn deepen the proceedings as well.
But as the story unspools, the subtext becomes as obvious as the narrative. Political allusions dovetail into an undercooked comparison between war and entertainment: the tendency (and necessity) of both systems to use, abuse, and discard the human souls that keep the gears turning. You can tell this train of thought was taken further in the novel, but in del Toro’s adaptation, it merely peeks through the curtain at irregular intervals. It’s a tepid approach, reminiscent of how Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—which was produced by del Toro—fitfully referenced the Vietnam War.
The film’s moral conflicts are similarly rudimentary. Infamous vices of the American noir are revealed to be—wouldn’t you know it—bad. Plot developments unfold how and when you’d expect them to, with little regard for how they affect the characters beyond highlighting what we already knew about them. Cooper’s performance may be understated, but there comes a point where there’s too little to understate. One wishes he’d embrace the unhinged fever burning at the edges of his character. At no point does Nightmare Alley border on unwatchable, but it maintains an equal distance from compelling.
The film isn’t without its passing pleasures. It’s lit so well that its cigarette scenes will undo decades of anti-smoking PSAs, particularly when the deliciously wicked Cate Blanchett is wielding a smoke. The neo-noir color grade, saturated in color yet inky and dark, conjures the mood of a sunset after a rainy day. But on the whole, Nightmare Alley rarely rises above the level of decent adaptation.