Bradley Cooper might not be anybody's first pick to star in a latter-day film noir. He seems too warm and intelligent, with an appealing smile of the sort that's unlikely ever to portend anything good in the dark noir world. However, in Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley, a stylish remake of a 1947 noir of the same title, Cooper, kitted out with roomy suits, flat-brim fedoras and other period sartorial accouterments, is entirely plausible as a skeezy conman engaged in a losing battle with fate.
His character, Stanton Carlisle, is a devious carnival barker who dreams of even bigger and more devious things. Right from the beginning we see that Stan is fleeing the consequences of an especially nasty crime he's committed. Trudging down a backwoods road, he comes upon a traveling carnival filled with human oddities, among them a "snake man," an "electric girl," and a geek—the carnival specialist hired to do repulsive things like bite the heads off live chickens. ("How could anybody get so low?" Stan wonders. He'll soon find out.) Before very long, the newcomer discovers that the carnival's bizarre midway is known to its inhabitants as "Nightmare Alley."
The movie has been beautifully filmed by Dan Laustsen, who also shot del Toro's Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, and who here finds a new noir tone in soft falls of snow outside a big floor-to-ceiling window. In its concern with texture—gleaming deco walls and polished marble hallways—the picture is in some sense about the moody pleasures of noir itself: that vaguely defined cinematic and literary genre that is still sending out tendrils of moral rot some 80 years after its heyday. A lot has changed in that time, of course, as Del Toro demonstrates with his take on an early scene in the original movie. Back in 1947 the carnival geek was not seen at first but was kept in a pit below the lip of the stage, into which a clutch of live chickens was dropped. Horror fanboy Del Toro has no interest in such restraint—he gives us the full-feathered rip-and-dribble experience.
There are a few other memorably gruesome moments in the film, but it never becomes a simplistic horror flick. Its most disturbing incidents evolve out of the twisted motives of its unsavory characters, in particular Cate Blanchett's Dr. Lilith Ritter, a scheming psychologist into whose hands Carlisle has had the misfortune to fall, and Richard Jenkins's Ezra Grindle, one of Ritter's nutcase patients. More persuasively sane are Rooney Mara's Molly Cahill, the melancholy electric girl, and Toni Collette and David Strathairn, husband-and-wife mentalists who undertake teaching Carlisle the secrets of their tacky trade. For a while, with the help of some dubious assistance from Dr. Ritter, it begins to look as if Stan and Molly might find some kind of salvation from the world of malice and mistrust in which they've been trapped. Surely it can be no spoiler for noir fans to reveal that this is not in the cards.