Nightmare Alley, review: Bradley Cooper can’t save Guillermo del Toro’s stiff, synthetic thriller

Early on in Nightmare Alley, when Bradley Cooper’s aspiring con artist is being schooled in the mind-reader’s devious art, his tutor (David Strathairn) gives him an indispensable piece of advice. In every move and mannerism, the seasoned swindler briefs his protégé, “people are desperate to tell you who they are”. 

That’s indisputably true of Nightmare Alley’s director Guillermo del Toro – a noted gourmand of the ghoulish and connoisseur of the condemned, whose work has always been steeped in admiration for the monsters and outcasts of cinema’s past. In that respect, his latest is business as usual. As well as being a remake of an especially seamy 1947 noir – or, rather, a new adaptation of the 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel on which it was based – it pays generous tribute to the sorts of films whose names you can imagine the creator of Pan’s Labyrinth used to Tippex onto his school bag. 

Ornamental gardens conjure memories of Last Year at Marienbad; a funhouse curtain of eyes peeps back to Hitchcock’s Spellbound. One of its principal settings, a tattered carnival of rejects and eccentrics, owes a big-top-sized debt to Tod Browning’s transgressive 1932 classic Freaks. But does Del Toro have anything else to tell us apart from what he likes? 

For perhaps the first time in his near-three-decade career, it doesn’t seem like it. Del Toro’s first feature since The Shape of Water’s unlikely Oscar-night triumph in 2018 is an act of origami-level homage: it’s all folded together in impressively fiddly ways, but the result is an angular, inert approximation, lacking in the original’s breath or heat. It’s also crisply shot and cartoonishly lit in exactly the same way as Del Toro’s 2013 mechs-and-monsters romp Pacific Rim: entirely the wrong look for a tale riddled with grey areas and grit.

Its fatal flaw, though, is structural. The script, written by Del Toro and his wife Kim Morgan, divides cleanly in two, but its second half is agonisingly drawn out, and robs the rise-and-fall plot of all the momentum it naturally builds. At two and a half hours, Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is 40 minutes longer than the lean, mean, Tyrone Power-starring 1940s version, despite telling an almost identical story. 

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