Bradley Cooper taps his dark side in Guillermo del Toro's deliciously dark 'Nightmare Alley'

  • Stan (Bradley Cooper) learns some dark lessons in a traveling carnival show in Guillermo del Toro's "Nightmare Alley."

    Stan (Bradley Cooper) learns some dark lessons in a traveling carnival show in Guillermo del Toro's "Nightmare Alley." Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

  • Molly (Rooney Mara), left, teams up with con man Stan (Bradley Cooper) in "Nightmare Alley."

    Molly (Rooney Mara), left, teams up with con man Stan (Bradley Cooper) in "Nightmare Alley." Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

  • Lilith (Cate Blanchett), left, convinces Stan (Bradley Cooper) to target the rich and vulnerable in "Nightmare Alley."

    Lilith (Cate Blanchett), left, convinces Stan (Bradley Cooper) to target the rich and vulnerable in "Nightmare Alley." Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Posted12/16/2021 6:00 AM

"Nightmare Alley" - ★ ★ ★ ★

If you took a sleazy, exploitative E.C. Comics tale, made it into a motion picture with top acting talent and A-list production design and costumes, you'd get something close to Guillermo del Toro's horrific, moral parable "Nightmare Alley."


This deliciously dark depiction of deplorable people begins as an homage to Tod Browning's seminal 1932 carny fest "Freaks" before it slides into a poisonous, noiry pairing of two master manipulators worthy of a Stephen King novel, then concluding as a classic O. Henry short story might.

"Nightmare Alley" comes from William Lindsay Gresham's shocking 1946 novel, the basis for a far less graphic 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power and for a 2010 musical and a 2012 graphic novel.

It stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, an actor's dream role of an ambitious, ruthless sociopath lurking behind a seductive facade of charm and sophistication.

We first meet Stan as he shoves a corpse into a hole in the floor of an old house he subsequently sets on fire. If you miss it, catch it during one of a jillion flashbacks.

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Aimlessly drifting under society's radar, the desperate Stan winds up at a traveling carnival show where he slowly befriends shady manager Clem Hoatley (a dodgy Willem Dafoe).

Stan becomes fascinated with how these hucksters sell their sordid fantasy wares to a willing public.

He catches on to their tricks so quickly that Clem shares a few carny secrets, mostly how to create a geek -- someone who bites the heads off chickens -- by slowly enslaving an alcoholic into the job while promising him better work.

Stan soaks up this free education in preying on human weakness, mostly by learning tricks of the mentalist's trade shared by Pete, an aging showman (David Strathairn), and his supposedly clairvoyant assistant Zeena (Toni Collette).

Finally ready to con the world for all he can get, Stan persuades Rooney Mara's innocent, dewy-eyed Molly to leave the paternal protection of the carnival's caring strongman (Ron Perlman) and run away with him.


Two years pass in a single edit. Stan and Molly's perfected mentalist act has hit the big time, playing swanky, high-society clubs in Buffalo. There, a perfectly quaffed icy blonde psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, oozing with femme fatale pheromones) calls him out as a cheat, initiating the screen's edgiest bad, bad romance since Fred MacMurray hit on Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity."

Right about now, you might be wondering "Hey, when do the monsters and ghosts come into the movie?"

Del Toro, whose dancing creature fantasy "The Shape of Water" won the Academy Award for Best Picture, has consistently employed the supernatural in his movies up to this one.

Perhaps del Toro thought the characters in "Nightmare Alley" were scary and monstrous enough without importing extra help from the beyond.

Cam McLauchlin's judicious editing propels the narrative through some leisurely segments. Tamara Deverell's retina-arresting production designs defy boredom, not just in the creepy trappings of the carnival (fetuses in jars, anyone?) but in Lilith's clinically cold and opulently decorated office, where she proposes to join Stan in fleecing the rich and vulnerable.

That would be ultrawealthy Ezra Grindle (DeKalb native and great character actor Richard Jenkins). He wants desperately to communicate with his dead wife, and Stan is more than willing to help him -- for a chunk of money.

Wait a minute. Did Stan forget the dire warning issued by his former mentor, Pete: "No good comes from a spook show"?

By this point, Cooper has rendered Stan with such clarity that we know he feels invincible, beyond any consequences for his ego-centric, insatiable, endless drive for personal validation at any cost.

The screenplay, by del Toro and Kim Morgan, wisely declines to invoke an appropriate biblical passage "for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

But that's the moral take-away in del Toro's seductive descent into violence and cruelty committed by characters sharing a single commonality:

They're not monsters.

They're human. And that can be worse.

• • •

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Other: A Searchlight Pictures release. In theaters. Rated R for language, nudity, sexual situations, violence. 139 minutes

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