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'Nightmare Alley' review: Carnival act doesn't do the trick

Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and more star in the latest from Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In Guillermo del Toro's "Nightmare Alley," the visionary director's somewhat labored follow-up to his Oscar-winning "The Shape of Water," all the world is a carnival, the only thing that changes is the marks. 

Del Toro fashions this homage to 1940s travelling carnies, desperate con men and cigarette smoking dames as a noir novel come to life. The visuals are on point but the story drags, especially as it enters its second half and it begins spinning its very slick-looking vintage wheels. It's a high-style exercise where the substance becomes a sideshow attraction. 

Bradley Cooper in "Nightmare Alley."

Bradley Cooper plays Stanton "Stan" Carlisle, a troubled drifter — he's first seen burying a body in the floorboards of a home and striking a match — who hooks up with a roadside carnival headed up by Clement Hoately (Willem Dafoe, right at home in a '40s band of freaks). 

Stan is a charmer and a grifter, so he fits right in. He helps out the circus psychic, Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and learns the tricks of the trade from her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn). He also takes to a young assistant, Molly (Rooney Mara), and sees money in an act with her far away from the carnival and in real theaters for real paying customers. 

Two years later, he's taking rich people's money hand over fist, working the circuit in front of well tailored crowds in Chicago. That's where he meets a shadowy psychologist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, vamping it up big time), who seduces and manipulates him, and leads him toward a wealthy client, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) with some sizable skeletons in his closet. Stan goes to work on Ezra but is in over his head and falls into destructive patterns, while Lilith — her eyes lit like the femme fatale on the jacket of a dime store novella — laughs a villainous laugh, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally.

The carnival portion of "Nightmare Alley" — which is based on a 1946 novel, and was previously turned into a film in 1947 — is where the film works best, and del Toro is right at home among the outcasts who make up the close knit family of carnies. (Ron Perlman and Clifton Collins Jr. show up in small roles.)

When the story goes full noir it becomes more of a high wire act, and it's predicated on the viewer's belief in a chief character's belief in ghosts. It's a tough bridge to cross, and del Toro isn't there to help cover the gap. 

But it sure looks good — credit production designer Tamara Deverell, who brings light to del Toro's dark vision — and it pays loving tribute to an earlier era of American history and classic film. As a throwback to Hollywood's yesteryear, "Nightmare Alley" is a grand visual feast but as a modern thriller, it can't quite pull off its trick. Time to pack up the carnival and head to another town. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Nightmare Alley'

GRADE: C+

Rated R: for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language

Running time: 150 minutes

In theaters