Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper (Stan Carlisle) who is down on his luck and apparently running away from a sordid past (we watch him burn down a house). In true film noir spirit, any hope of a new future comes in the form of a carnival – a medley of trickery and illusion.
Interestingly, Stan doesn’t speak for like the first fifteen minutes of the movie. We’re wandering alongside him when he first encounters a side show with a “geek” freak who is exploited for tips from curious on-lookers. Stan utters his first words after we see an empathetic connection with the geek. Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) is at the reigns of the carnival tents, and he invites Stan to join the company.
As if a light has gone on, now Stan doesn’t stop talking. He meets a charming Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner Pete (David Srathairn) who help him become a mentalist. Stan evolves his talents to save the carnival from being shut down, impressing the electric Molly (Rooney Mara). The couple leave the carnival behind, setting their sights on hustling a higher society.
But it gets darker. He pairs up with a rigid and wealthy psychiatrist named Lilith (Cate Blanchett). From here on out, there’s a sense of impending doom. Kind of like watching someone stuck in a very deep well making plans to get out. You just know stacking chairs is not going to work.
Visually, Nightmare Alley is an attractive film and Guillermo Del Toro uses shadows and light to create a mysterious, threatening backdrop. However, what is missing is an actual build up and tension. The performances are fine, but I am not rooting for anyone. I can’t figure out this is a plot issue or just a boring delivery. Film noir or film ennui?