Readers may remember film director Guillermo del Toro. His last movie was 2017’s “The Shape of Water,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture. His new movie is “Nightmare Alley,” the second film version of a 1946 Hard-Boiled novel.
The new “Nightmare Alley” is more like del Toro’s fantasy movies and less like “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” for example. The settings and characters are the director’s primary interests, not the story.
Which is just as well. He has a fine cast to make something of the movie’s people — Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Toni Collette, Williem Dafoe and Rooney Mara are the headline names. And the look of everything here is straight out of comic books.
Unfortunately, the plot is cliche and depends on a wildly improbable choice by its lead character, carny Stan (Cooper). He decides to have all his money held by psychiatrist Ritter (Blanchett) for no apparent reason.
Stan begins the movie by dumping his father’s body into a hole he’s made in the floor of their home (why, we wonder) before setting the house on fire. He falls in with a side show that isn’t attached to a circus. Which makes it odd.
He begins to learn a mentalist act from some old-timers. He falls in love with a girl who is doing a static electricity act. He helps his employer dispose of the body of a “geek” — a manimal people pay to see eat live chickens.
All the while he is suffering from flashbacks to his last day or so at home with his father. This sequence we go back to frequently, each time starting a little earlier until we have the whole story.
Over an hour into this 150-minute film, Stan takes off for Chicago with the dance-loving static girl. They upgrade their costumes, move into a nice hotel (Art Deco, like most of the large buildings in the film), and begin entertaining the well-heeled at a ritzy night club.
Doc Ritter brings one wealthy patient to see the show. In one of the movie’s puzzling sequences, Stan manages to say enough of the right things about a dead relation to convince this older man that he can get some solace by consulting the mentalist privately.
This is fine as an explanation for how Stan gets introduced to his even-richer ultimate client. But the story doesn’t drop the first rich man once Stan is done with him. Ritter, by the way, provides Stan with confidential information that helps him snow that first rich guy during their private sittings.
Finally, almost two hours in, the story introduces its most substantial problem for Stan — richer client is getting bored hearing from the fake seer that he was to blame for the death of his lover. Stan has an idea about how to satisfy his mark. Not that said idea makes any sense to the viewer.
The plot’s close, also implausible, is in the best traditions of this sort of ironic story. Nevertheless, viewers may feel as if they were taken a long way, partly to allow them to forget the earlier announced “truth” that provides the kick in the script’s last sentence.
So even del Toro fans may think his “Nightmare Alley” asks too much of its viewers. And it does suggest something about the quality of this 2021’s films that this one is being called “one of the year’s best.”