Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Kim Morgan and Guillermo del Toro (based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham)
The list of things about Guillermo del Toro's 2021 film, Nightmare Alley, that justify Guillermo del Toro remaking the 1947 film noir, Nightmare Alley, is a very small one. The first possibility, that it's a new adaptation of the novel, well, you can forget that. Otherwise, then: it's more violent; it's got swears (combined, these two things net it del Toro's preferred R rating, often in ways that feel inorganic to the scenario and annoyingly try-hard); it pronounces the word "tarot" correctly; it's, uh, in color. Okay, there's one big thing that wouldn't justify it all by itself, but is an objective and substantial fix to the original: in the role of a psychiatrist to the wealthy elite, it casts a 52 year old woman, Cate Blanchett, who looks very much like she could be in the prime of her career, rather than a 27 year old like Kate Walker, who plausibly looks like she might not have quite graduated high school, let alone medical school.
I wouldn't like you to get the wrong idea about my feelings for Nightmare Alley '47, then: it's not some unimpeachable masterpiece. It's just a very good movie with an especially caustic and hopeless attitude, even for a noir. There are a lot of things in it that could stand improvement, and I honestly had some hope that del Toro was the guy for it. For starters, it's at least possible to quibble with its essence as a Tyrone Power vanity project (or anti-vanity project), designed to stain his image a bit and demonstrate his range, and while Power is rather good it's not that hard to imagine someone doing Nightmare Alley's perpetually-falling antihero better. Once past Joan Blondell, it wouldn't be difficult at all to imagine better performances in the secondary cast, and del Toro's lined up a murderer's row of actors to fill out the whole cast here. That bifurcated plot is a little cumbersome, too, and could stand some smoothing out. Most importantly, it's not all that interesting a film visually, so even the most slavish remake need not have been just a colorized version of a black-and-white classic—especially given that an eye for expressionistic, phantasmagoric color is del Toro's best asset, and that's something a movie set mostly at a carnival (and otherwise in the Art Deco spaces of the pre-war elite) ought to have benefited from.
So the most remarkable thing about del Toro's film is how badly this room for improvement gets squandered. It looks more interesting, that's worth mentioning; there's a sumptuousness to Tamara Deverell's production design that does full justice to the environments, particularly the carnival that's now a sprawling, real place, rather than three people who run a mentalist show plus a chick who electrocutes herself. Likewise, Del Toro at least has ideas for doing this in color (including pilfering imagery straight from himself, most egregiously Crimson Peak, still I'm pretty sure his best movie), though these ideas pretty much never go beyond the mood of a single shot—a scene if you're lucky—and, with disappointing frequency, they don't go beyond del Toro's instinct that if he didn't add some color accent to break up Dan Lausten's cinematography, then this Nightmare Alley might've wound up just as monochrome as the original. Still, that glossy, steely look at least feels appropriate to the "Art Deco spaces of the pre-war elite" half. But these are some thin reeds. If Nightmare Alley '21 is remembered at all, it'll be as the time that Guillermo del Toro remade a movie because in the original, the geek didn't bite the head off the chicken onscreen.
So to those who don't know what the hell I'm talking about, yet somehow haven't clicked off after I spent 600 words implicitly assuming you did, Nightmare Alley is the tale of Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), whom we meet on this go-'round as he burns down a house with a corpse in it, escaping into the night only to wind up at the end of the line, where he finds a traveling carnival. He wanders into a geek show and is disgusted, but he's also broke, so he loiters around looking miserable till the boss (Willem Dafoe) gives him a job, whereupon he falls in with the mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) and her wastrel alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), and while he fools around with Zeena, he learns the secrets of the great stage act they'd put on in their bygone and better years. Now armed with a shockingly (almost unbelievably) effective code system for fooling an audience into believing he can read minds and contact the spirits, he escapes the carnival's gravity, taking along with him his other, younger girlfriend, Molly (Rooney Mara). With her help, he puts Zeena and Pete's stolen secrets to work, but this time the target isn't country rubes, but high society. It's in his capacity as "the Great Stanton," then, that he makes the acquaintance of psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Blanchett), who visits a show with the mission of testing his powers on behalf of a skeptical patient—she'd just as soon embarrass him in front of his audience—but when he handles her challenge so adeptly that he actually manages to publicly humiliate her, it boosts his profile enough to begin doing "private consultations." At first, the scam seems to be helpful to grieving mothers and fathers, that sort of thing; but it becomes far more dangerous once Stan ropes Lilith into his grift, enlisting her to feed him confidential information on the kind of e-ticket sucker (Richard Jenkins) who could make him rich. This, obviously, will turn out to have been a mistake on Stan's part.
Get rid of the new actors' names and a very, very few incidental details, and this is exactly the same Goddamn plot synopsis as the original, only done at 40 minutes' greater length, and somehow managing to put less story in it, wasting most of one of the best on-paper casts of 2021; it's nuts how little Collette and Strathairn get to do, not just because you'd assume those actors would have major roles, but because their predecessors had extremely major roles. Hence Zeena and Pete, pretty much the third- and fourth-most important characters in the 1947 film, get demoted to plot device here. I said the visuals establish the carnival as a place, but I'd be more impressed if the screenplay established it as a setting, and it doesn't. Even the adultery feels like a obligatory detail included with a shrug more than it does a dynamic—and maybe the general tackiness of del Toro's approach to the whole film can be summed up in Zeena and Stan's first meeting, which replaces the wary romantic transaction between Power and Blondell with Collette blithely jerking Cooper off in a bathtub within two minutes of making his acquaintance. Now that I think about it, this should have been a red flag.
There's little things, of course: for example, in an unnecessary and initially-confusing convolution, the traveling carnival merges with a standing carnival, an event that slightly redefines the parameters of Deverell's production design and affects the story not at all. One suspects that del Toro and Morgan somehow had a lot of trouble with a screenplay that came pre-written for them; I'm not going to waste our time nitpicking, but one of the more needling things about the script is more like a special case of the condescension that courses through every word of it, with del Toro and Morgan constantly terrified that you're too stupid to "get" that this movie about traveling carnivals and mentalist shows is set in the 1940s. They perceive this need so keenly that December 7th 1941 appears to occur twice.*
But, as noted, that's just a special case: just as del Toro has to make sure you know it's the 1940s, del Toro also wants to make sure you know that scamming people by pretending to contact their dead loved ones is bad. This finally ends up in a scene, less than sixty seconds, that feels like it came out of the black comedy version of Nightmare Alley, a mode this movie has never operated in beforehand and will never operate in again, so you're left with the director screaming "ACTIONS have CONSEQUENCES" at you and leaving you with the dizzy sensation you get when you realize that a movie made under the Code and in the 1940s was somehow able to respect its audience's moral reasoning better and didn't have to resort to cartoonish hyperbole to get its point across. And, Lord, this isn't even getting into Jenkins's Ezra Grindle, whose climactic revelations regarding his dead loved one come off like del Toro and Morgan were getting tired of this movie and wanted to start a brand new one about an entirely different subject (apparently serial killing?), before they realized they'd hit the two hour mark fifteen minutes ago. There are a lot of such new-for-the-sake-of-new attempts to elaborate in the back half of the film. None take—they are, in fact, only barely comprehensible, and the incomprehensible part of the original's ending ("how did this guy with these skills become alcoholic gutter-trash?") is not improved by de-abstracting it with the bare-minimum effort to plant some seeds for it. Now, the core remains—it's still a Greek tragedy, and this one, to its credit, has the book-accurate ending. (I even thought del Toro had the obvious-but-clever idea to have Cooper play a dual role, but it turns out the geek is just Paul Anderson, who merely kind-of looks like Cooper if you put him in a beard and throw him into chiaroscuro darkness.)
So you've got the Nightmare Alley story, but del Toro keeps fiddling with it, and even things that should work, like the film's greater emphasis on religious imagery, don't. Thanks to existing mostly in visual signposting—signposting in the most literal sense, e.g. a "Jesus saves" neon sign or a funhouse based on the seven deadly sins—it seems more like another instance of del Toro's low opinion of an audience he doesn't trust to understand what the story's about, namely that religion, spiritualist scams, psychiatry, and substance addiction are all of a piece, each offering its own dangerous palliative for the pain of being human. That's a worthy enough theme that making it more explicit would not by itself be bad; that's probably why the book spends time on Stanton as the leader of what amounts to a cult. (The 1947 film sneaks this in with Zeena's reliance upon tarot, the significance of which appears to completely escape del Toro and Morgan.) In this iteration, anyway, it just makes you constantly, irritably aware that the main characters are named "S[a]tan" and "Lilith."
The film is, nevertheless, as a rule better after Blanchett appears, granting the proceedings the electric charge of two sociopaths orbiting dangerously around one another. It's not the most demanding role, but she's good at it, and fundamentally it's still a good, twisty noir plot del Toro's got here. (Of course it's the original's problem, too, that the plot doesn't even think about starting till after a long first act origin story; the original did tell it better, though.) There's even the very occasional moment where del Toro clicks entirely with the material, rather than just using it as an excuse for the kind of noir pastiche where Cooper potentially might've walked off the shoot with lung cancer: Cooper is mostly good-enough as this film's more blatantly-malignant version of Stan, but there's one extravagantly great bit where del Toro lets a shallow-focus shot linger on his face after Pete gives him his first "stock reading," and he realizes that, for all his unpardonable sins, he's not special, and you can see the creaking wheels in his head turn as this means that nobody is, and so he's free to do anything. That's a pivot on which a fresh and interesting version of this story could've been told. Too bad it wasn't.
*I mean, if I wanted to nitpick, I'd mention the "recent loss" that dialogue establishes to have taken place in World War One.