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Nightmare Alley review – Guillermo del Toro’s devilishly thrilling neo-noir

This monstrously grim psychodrama brings a bizarre world to visceral life, fronted by an astonishing turn from Bradley Cooper

In carny parlance, a “Nightmare Alley” is where a carnival sideshow lures its most desperate visitors to its most depraved and depressing acts, usually some horrifying booze-soaked backstreet in an abandoned slice of America. In other words, the kind of place a Guillermo del Toro film can easily call home. A piercingly bleak blend of psychodrama and neo-noir, Nightmare Alley is one of del Toro’s darkest movies to date, not to mention one of his absolute best, eschewing the supernatural entirely for a world of corruption and self-destruction, brought to life with exceptional design and an astounding performance from Bradley Cooper.

Cooper plays Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a drifter in 1939 America, escaping from a rather dismal past. Getting off a Greyhound bus at the end of the line, he finds himself pitching up to carnival in upstate New York, where the unscrupulous ringmaster Clem (Willem Dafoe) offers him work. Though he starts out as extra muscle, Stan is transfixed by the ‘mind-reading’ act of carnival old-timers Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn). He sees how willing people are to trick themselves into believing in the supernatural and, as a natural con artist and showman, puts his own spin on the act and starts making good, but dangerous, money, scamming the rich and powerful by pretending to speak to their dead love ones.

Unlike most del Toro films, there is no hint of actual ghosts or monsters – Stan’s act is one hundred percent fabrication, made possible by code words fed to him by his assistant and partner Molly (Rooney Mara). It makes for a gripping and tense psychological thriller, Stan and Molly always at risk of overplaying their hand, a thriller that slowly morphs into a pitch-dark noir with the arrival of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a high-powered, ice-cold psychotherapist who sees in Stan a kindred spirit and a very lucrative partnership.

To say any more would be to detract from one of the year’s most devilishly enjoyable plots, del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan taking the queasy grey morality of both the original novel by William Lindsay Gresham and the 1947 film adaptation and refusing to add a single ray of light. No one here is a good person, especially not Stan and Lilith, but their stories are still utterly compelling, the various power plays and genre switches constantly pulling the rug from underneath you in ways that surprise but always feel earned. There are even thrills to be found in the most telegraphed plot points, Del Toro ratcheting up the tension before the wrenching catharsis of the inevitable denouement, and his trademark use of crunching, close-up violence remains as wince-inducing and blackly funny as it’s ever been.

Anchoring all this dense plot is a sublime, often wordless, turn from Cooper, standing head and shoulders above this already formidable cast, none of whom are putting in anything less than great work. Stan’s charm has menace, and his menace charm, and Cooper perfectly plays this mercurial and dangerous combination, sometimes charismatic and sometimes frighteningly bestial. It’s taken a bit of time for Cooper to truly find his groove as an actor, but Nightmare Alley, coupled with A Star Is Born and his sensational supporting turn in Licorice Pizza, is firm proof that he is now one of the absolute best working today.

Of course, a del Toro film can’t just be an actors’ showcase, even when it has as many star names as this, and the design work here is impeccable. Glorious, glossy costumes play into these characters’ veneers of class and legitimacy, while the world built by production designer Tamara Deverell can go head to head with The Tragedy of Macbeth as the year’s most striking and strangely beautiful. Though he avoids tying in to any specific real world events, del Toro also offers smart contextualisation of this story. Taking place from 1939 to the end of 1941, the moral stain of the US’s inaction in the face of evil during the first two years of World War II seeps out to infect the characters, whether they’re powerful lawmakers or off-the-grid entirely.

A clever and darkly hilarious ending caps off the film perfectly, fate catching up to these characters even as the world they’re part of starts to die away. Harsh and grim, bordering on the broadly nihilistic, Nightmare Alley might prove one of del Toro’s less accessible films (there’s certainly none of the warmth of The Shape of Water to be found here) but, just like one of Stan’s confidence tricks, it hooked me in and left me hanging on every word.

Nightmare Alley is in cinemas from 21 January.

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