Guillermo del Toro's latest film is his first remake, adapted from William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel but often adhering to the noir roots of the 1947 film. Make no mistake, the film is gorgeous and a playground for the iconic director to explore new passions that don't involve fantastic creatures. At times, this neo-noir soars and at times, like its main character, it sinks.
The film follows Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a drifter who joins a traveling circus. The film opens with him dragging a body across a dusty floor and then setting the room on fire. Saturated in a haze of fog and dirt thanks to cinematographer Dan Lausten, we know early on that things are bleak. The early carnival setting offers a treasure of grim-filled visuals, particularly with The Geek. The Geek is a sideshow attraction featuring a man who is so far gone he bites the heads of chickens. We learn a little later on from the ringleader (Willem Dafoe) that the Geek is an alcoholic willing to do these gross acts for booze.
For a while, Stan is a silent observer. He quickly befriends psychic Zeena (Toni Collete) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). Collette is a bit underused in the role but her chemistry with Strathairn gives the first half of the film a lot of heft. Strathairn is great in the small role, making a shady man empathetic as he reckons with his soul. Stan soon begins to admire Molly (Rooney Mara). They eventually leave the big top for the big city and it is here where Nightmare Alley finds its footing. This is largely thanks to Cate Blanchett and the femme fatale Dr Lilith Ritter who interrupts Molly and Stan's new city act.
Cooper as Stan is completely flat. He never captivates us or wins us over. His chemistry with Mara is also a dud, unlike her electric act from her carnival days the sparks never fly between them. His quiet, introspective approach to Stan never jives with the energy of the fantastic supporting cast. We see his rise to fame as a mentalist, who charms the rich, but we never believe his charming nature. This changes with Blanchett's arrival. She convinces Stan to take on a big mark, one of her patients, to dry him of his wealth. The film's best scene involves the two of them as Lilith seduces Stan. Blanchett gives an Oscar-worthy supporting role. It is a shame the film doesn't find more ways to use her.
One of the biggest issues here is the bloated runtime. The original film told a similar story but did it under two hours. At 140 minutes, Nightmare Alley drags. It remains visually impressive for that long runtime. However, that simply isn't enough. Cooper is miscast as the lead and the film struggles to feel urgent, even as the walls close in on Stan.