Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is a beautifully dark, atmospheric take on the 1947 original film noir starring Tyrone Power. Unfortunately, the new version’s tone is so dark that it makes its characters stiff and wooden in the process. As remakes go, “Nightmare Alley” pales in comparison to the first one’s fun in revealing the story’s twists and turns.
Bradley Cooper stars as Stan Carlisle, a man escaping a dark past who literally takes a bus to ‘the end of the line’ to find a travelling carnival. While walking through “the Geek” sideshow attraction, Stan catches the eye of carny owner Clem (Willem Dafoe) by walking out and not paying. Stan’s walkout brings him face-to-face with Bruno (Ron Perlman), the carny’s strongman who offers him work packing up the tents before an oncoming storm. Stan takes the work and Clem pays him- minus the ‘Geek fee’ Stan found his way around.
As the carnival moves, Stan moves with it. His labor proves Stan loyal enough for Clem to offer him steady work, which he finds with Zeena (Toni Collette) – the carny’s clairvoyant. Zeena’s sixth sense comes from Stan gathering crowd questions and a mirror below the stage that feeds Zeena the information. Working the confidence scam with Zeena and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), Stan slowly learns of a ‘signal and word-based’ mind-reading con that Pete’s perfected written in a little black book: with an assistant working the audience, the blindfolded carny can identify objects through the assistant’s clue-coded language. Such a scam could make Stan a star if he was ambitious enough. Falling for Bruno’s daughter Molly (Rooney Mara), Stan sees stars- for himself and assistant Molly.
Stan acquires Pete’s book through shady circumstance and (two years later with Molly at his side) becomes the toast of the town, working swanky nightclubs with his swami routine. Enter Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who sees through Stan’s scam. Will she bring him down in classic femme fatale fashion? You bet.
“Nightmare Alley’s” story is a fun one (what’s not to like about con men getting conned?). However, what takes that fun away in del Toro’s version is Stan’s scripted character. From the start we know Cooper’s Stan is shady, so everything that leads to his downfall seems a justified comeuppance. In the 1947 original, Tyrone Power’s Stan doesn’t have a dark past- he’s just a master manipulator and such a good con man that we’re surprised when he’s eventually the one being conned.
The character shortcomings in del Toro’s script also waste Cate Blanchett’s talents. As Lilith Ritter, she’s a flat femme fatale- there’s zero chemistry between Blanchett and Cooper. In a script where she should be a sexy schemer who pairs up with Stan for the ultimate con, Blanchett comes off as aloof and unattached. No bueno. As excited as I was to watch this talented group of actors tackle the material, I didn’t expect del Toro’s tone to temper my enjoyment. In this visually vibrant “Nightmare,” I was the one who got conned.