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 beautifully composed shots. Still, all that eye candy 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 seaminess and immorality, yet Del Toro presents it all far too sleekly. It’s pulp fiction at odds with sumptuous production values.
It’s a shame because the film is well-acted, the script adaptation by del Toro and Kim Morgan is smart, and the source material has a lot to say about fame, exploitation, and the privileged who get away murder (both literally and figuratively), but the Academy Award-winning filmmaker loves to compose too many shots within an inch of their life. His camera work is precise and smooth yet he never seems to allow for anything ragged or random. It’s all too tight, too composed, too perfect looking.
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 the married Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette). His trysts with her, while drunk hubby (David Strathairn) is in a fog, are successful enough that he wheedles his way into her act. Carlisle becomes part and parcel to the con artists there, separating gullible audiences from their money, and he soon realizes that he has a flair for show biz.
Additionally, 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.
Soon, 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) who wants to partner with Carlisle to get in on the action. Yet, here again, del Toro can’t help but over art direct Ritter’s office where the two finally meet to put their scheme into effect. Her polished mahogany walls, the expensive furnishings, oodles of ornate fixtures, and warm lighting that would make George Hurrell weep – it’s all too gorgeous and far too distracting.
Meanwhile, the actors, particularly Cooper and Richard Jenkins as a high-end heavy, are uniformly terrific. The dialogue has a real snap to it. And Nathan Johnson’s score keeps you on edge throughout. There probably isn’t a better-looking film this year, but it’s far too pretty for a story where almost every character is scum.
Del Toro manages to tell Carlisle’s “rags to riches” arc with a strong through-line, and he ensures that the acidic commentary on America’s class system cannot be missed. Such assets would shine through all the more if every image didn’t gleam quite so beautifully. Del Toro just won’t allow anything to be shot ugly, not even a character’s path as he bleeds stumbling down a hallway. This NIGHTMARE ALLEY plays less like a bad dream and more like an Architectural Digest’s house of horrors. But such resplendence wasn’t Gresham’s gritty intent.