Flames are never far from Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), starting with those lapping near, but not too near, his heels as he exits the house that he’s just set alight over the body he’s deposited beneath the floorboards. In Guillermo del Toro’s oneiric vision of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Notice, too, the way any match Stanton strikes grows effulgent, as though it wants to consume more than just the cigarettes Stanton chain smokes throughout the film.
The metaphors are as persistent as they are impatient to be noticed in this arresting take on film noir. Hence wood paneling in a psychologist’s office that evokes a series of Rorschach’s tests, or the way Stanton, now adrift finds himself literally at the end of the line when his bus stops at the gates of a garish carnival in the middle of nowhere. Little does he realize that this is the first stop on dark odyssey in which he will try to outwit a destiny that he has unknowingly created for himself, frittering away the gift of free will, and ignoring the prescient advice proffered by those around him.
Stanton is a man on the make suddenly surrounded by carnys who make their living by hoodwinking the marks who flock to that ci-mentioned carnival in order to be taken in, one way or another, by the garish attractions that range from a one-eyed baby preserved in alcohol to the geek. That would be the illegal act in which a ravaged soul bites the head off a live chicken in exchange for a bottle of hooch and a dry place to sleep it off. It’s taking in that particular attraction that Stanton falls in with the carnys, hired by Clem (Willem Dafoe) first for quick job and a hot meal, and then as a roadie, and finally as a shill for Zeena (Toni Collette), who reads minds in the sideshow and sells baths with the personal touch in her cottage by the carnival.
In an intricate and carefully written, script by del Toro and Kim Morgan that shows all but gives away nothing, things are never is quite what they seem in the real world where Stanton manipulates everyone around him, albeit the signs and omens that surround him are plain enough. Stanton is whatever the person he is with needs him to be as he, in turn, hoodwinks the carnys who think they are smarter than he is. Cooper is superb playing several layers at once, and in bringing a troubling sort of authenticity to all of them that prevents the audience from ever getting too comfortably complaisant. Instead, we are tempted to believe that he has fallen for the winsome Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act he improves with a more dramatic use of the electric current that she sends through her body for the amusement of the rubes. We want to believe that he has found a surrogate father in Pete (David Straithairn in a performance of heartbreaking dignity, humor, and pathos), Zeena’s magician husband, a former headliner in legitimate venues whose genteel decline has almost reached its inevitable outcome. Or is it only Pete’s book, which details the system he worked out for a dazzling mind-reading act, that keeps Stanton hanging on his every word when he’s not making whoopee with Zeena?
Act two finds Stanton at the top of his game, playing swanky nightclubs with Molly assisting using Pete’s word code. Into this posh life comes the preternaturally self-possessed Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Ostensibly vetting Stanton for a patient desperate to reach his dead son, she wastes little time in beating Stanton at his own game of reading people before presenting him her own agenda for feeding Stanton information about well-heeled patients of varying degrees of humanity so that he can fool them into thinking he’s a medium who can contact the dead. They are two sides of the same coin, irresistibly drawn to one another, confessing their essential badness during their electric mutual seduction, all the while playing an ingenious confidence game where one misstep is fatal.
Stanton never believes his own spiel, taking Pete’s warning about the dangers involved. Still, he doesn’t heed Pete’s other warning about doing a “spook show” and how no good ever comes from it. And this is the most tantalizing element in a film that is mesmerizing from start to finish: a supernatural element that might be real, but can just as easily be explained away. Pete may be speaking from experience with his warnings (and certainly his broken-down state attests to some disaster in his past), or it may be a premonition on a par with the details of Stanton’s past he gleans from a wristwatch. Or that might just be as educated a guess as Zeena’s interpretation of her tarot cards when reading Stanton’s future.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a sumptuous morality tale with Old Testament justice and a vocabulary, both and aural, that is as intrinsic to the storytelling as any plot point or line of dialogue. With a running theme of people wishing to be seen and to reveal themselves del Toro and Morgan present us with a puckish irony of a man who does just that, to his astonishment.