Review: Nightmare Alley is a dark story starring Bradley Cooper

Nightmare Alley (MA15+, 150 minutes)

4 stars

The life of William Linsday Gresham was the stuff of noir. He had a deep interest in sideshows and spiritualism and descended into multiple marriages, infidelity, alcoholism, financial struggles, mental illness and, ultimately, suicide.

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley. Picture: 20th Century Studios

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley. Picture: 20th Century Studios

His best-remembered book is his first novel, Nightmare Alley, published in 1946. It drew on his knowledge of the carnival world and was adapted into a striking film the following year. The film - well worth seeking out - cast Tyrone Power effectively against type and, given the censorship limits of the time, presenting its story with an effectively dark, seedy and doom-laden atmosphere. While the movie's coda provides a note of bittersweet hope, it's the preceding descent into darkness and despair that's memorable.

Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro makes no such concession in his new adaptation of the book.

While it's a bit long - del Toro seems to have fallen in love with his film a little too much, as Peter Jackson often does - and some of the foreshadowing is a little heavy-handed, this new Nightmare Alley is grimly effective in its own right. It's not for the squeamish but for those of us who like looking behind the curtain and into the darkness, it's a must-see: vivid, detailed and horrifying in its cynicism, cruelty and despair.

It might also serve as an eye-opener to those who believe mentalism is real. Unlike other del Toro films, there's nothing supernatural here, though there is more than a slight suggestion that mentalism, psychology and religion have much in common.

In the late 1930s, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a drifter who gets a job with a travelling carnival. At first he's a general hand, helping put things up and take things down and move them. One of the things he helps the owner Clem (Willem Dafoe) move - or rather, dispose of - is the carnival's geek. Stan learns that a geek is a broken addict, enabled and exploited by the carnies, whose act consists of biting the heads off live chickens for the shock and amusement of the audience.

The horrified Stan - who doesn't drink - is shocked at how a man could wind up in such a state, but, as we learn, he hasn't got such scruples about everything. One of the qualities of Cooper's performance is that we're not quite sure when Stan is sincere: is the sliver of humanity he occasionally displays real?

Stan befriends and works with the clairvoyant act, "Madam Zeena" (Toni Colette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn).

A hustler and a quick study, he learns the codes and systems they have for communicating in order to impress and fool audiences, but they will only go so far in deceiving for entertainment's sake. They warn Stan never to do a "spook show" - leading people on by pretending to be able to communicate with the dead as it will end badly.

When Pete dies, Stan takes his code book and leaves the show with another carny, Molly (Rooney Mara), to whom he's become attracted.

Over the next couple of years, they establish a mentalist act and move up in status, entertaining the wealthy at society gatherings. At one of these gatherings, Stan encounters Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist, who attempts to expose their technique. He's able to get the better of her with his expertise in cold reading (using observation and educated guesswork) but this meeting will be a turning point in his life.

The film looks amazing - it's not hard to understand why del Toro lingers lovingly on the carnival, with its lurid attractions, its own society and its own rules.

There's a fine cast, too. Cooper captures both Stan's charm and the cold calculation that lies beneath it. Blanchett as Dr Ritter shares some of this latter quality. Strathairn and Dafoe feel like they could have come out of the carny world - intended as high praise - and all the actors contribute even when their roles are minor. Such veteran and familiar performers as Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and Tim Blake Nelson provide strong support.

This is not for those with delicate sensibilities, but it's a memorable journey for the rest of us.

This story Delving deep into the dark side first appeared on The Canberra Times.