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‘Nightmare Alley’: A great, great movie about some bad, bad people

Bradley Cooper leads one of the finest ensembles of the year in Guillermo del Toro’s lurid, visually vibrant thriller.

A con artist (Bradley Cooper) falls in with a seedy traveling sideshow in “Nightmare Alley.”
Searchlight Pictures

Just about everyone who crosses the screen in Guillermo del Toro’s lurid and blood-soaked noir thriller “Nightmare Alley” is an awful human being — a predator or a con artist or a killer or a thief, and in some cases a combination of the aforementioned. They’re fascinatingly terrible and if they get what’s coming to ’em it’s because they deserve it, and that makes for an entertaining, wall-to-wall watch.

This is an A-list rendition of a classic B-movie formula.

In fact, “Nightmare Alley” is based on the 1946 pulp novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, which in 1947 was adapted into an uneven but admirably bold and provocative film starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, and with all respect to those bygone stars and director Edmund Goulding, this version is an upgrade on all fronts. Everything about this film is engrossing, from the vibrant yet suitably dark visuals to the nomination-worthy production values to the brilliant performances from one of finest ensembles of the year, including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson and Mary Steenburgen. This is that rare movie when even a relatively minor role that encompasses maybe a half-dozen lines, e.g., a hulking bodyguard who will do anything to protect his boss, is played by a star-power talent: Holt McCallany, best known as Special Agent Bill Tench on “Mindhunter.” We could follow any of a dozen characters and let their story take over, and it would undoubtedly be fascinating.

With director del Toro and his co-writing partner Kim Morgan wisely keeping the story in its original time period, from the tail-end of the Great Depression in the late 1930s through the early 1940s, “Nightmare Alley” kicks off with Cooper’s Stanton “Stan” Carlisle torching a home under mysterious circumstances and then hitting the road, where he finds work at a “Ten-in-One,” i.e., a seedy and rundown traveling sideshow where the locals can see 10 different acts under one tent for a single price.

Del Toro and his frequent collaborator, ace cinematographer Dan Laustsen, literally pull back the curtain to reveal a tightly knit community of downtrodden outcasts, hustlers, freaks and geeks, led by Dafoe’s vampiric carnival barker, Clem Hoatley, who keeps a collection of deformed fetuses and other curiosities in jars, and immediately takes a liking to Stan, assuring him this is the kind of place where nobody asks about your past and nobody cares.

The handsome and clever Stan quickly implements upgrades to some tired acts, ingratiating himself with the clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her booze-soaked old husband Pete (David Strathairn), and begins to woo the seemingly innocent Molly (Rooney Mara), much to the consternation of Molly’s protective father-figure, the strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman), who sees Stan for what he is: a con man through and through.

The first half of “Nightmare Alley” is a deep dive into the rancid carny world — and then we take a drastic and stunning pivot that lands us in big-city Buffalo, where Stan and Molly have taken the routine once perfected by Pete and Zeena and turned it into a high-society mentalist act that has made them the toast of the town. Enter Cate Blanchett, who makes for a gloriously sultry femme fatale as one Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist who entices Stan into a series of elaborate and lucrative cons that make use of Dr. Ritter’s extensive and confidential secret recordings of therapy sessions with some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the city.

Molly (Rooney Mara) teams up with Stan (Bradley Cooper) on a touring mentalist act.
Searchlight Pictures

One such “mark” is the obscenely wealthy and ruthless Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), who believes Stan has the ability to contact the spirit of a young woman from Grindle’s past — a woman whose death has haunted Grindle for decades, and with justifiable reason. This is the thing with “Nightmare Alley”; we know Stan is a bad seed, but more than once, he comes up against human beings who are even more corrupt, more soulless, more capable of nearly unimaginable foul deeds.

Rooney Mara turns in finely honed work as Molly, arguably the only character who still has a moral compass. A damaged soul who has suffered horrific abuse, Molly at first sees Stan as a knight in muddy armor — but as their cons run deeper and more elaborate, she realizes her only chance at survival and redemption is to escape before it’s too late. But it already might be too late. Cooper does some of the finest work of his career as the duplicitous greedy Stan, who is blinded by his own avarice. Filled with juicy performances and unforgettable visuals, “Nightmare Alley” is one of the best films of the year.