Bradley Cooper stars in this remake about a carnival drifter turned psychic grifter who cons the wealthy elite into a baffling Best Picture nomination.
Watching a Guillermo del Toro movie is increasingly like tossing a coin between seeing a modern masterpiece (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) or some half-baked hokum (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak). Nightmare Alley is the latter, a confusing case of tell-don’t-show for such a stylish filmmaker. It carousels from Freaks to film noir and back again, never finding its footing nor much of a plot over two and a half hours; the first entirely unnecessary, the second where GDT doesn’t show us a God Damn Thing – and you don’t have to be a fortune teller to predict the ending.
The cold-reading drama is made colder still by an unlikeable protagonist – so far so noir, except without The Big Sleep-style intrigue it is basically a big snooze. Nightmare Alley only works if we find the lead charming, since we need to believe in his powers of persuasion and seduction of both the stars from Carol (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara). Blanchett camps it up while Cooper plays it down, leaving their scenes resembling a cat pawing hungrily at a jaundiced plate of liver.
It is a mismatch emblematic of the film’s muddled tone; del Toro clearly wants to make a carny movie but that aspect proves an hour-long sideshow, abandoned along with its best characters (Toni Collette and David Strathairn) in favour of room-based talking in which the director appears to have little interest. Even the visual and musical elements seem bare, bereft of the weirdness and wonder he usually does so well. For all the characters’ refusal to turn the carnival into a macabre and exploitative “spook show”, you rather wish del Toro had.