Nightmare Alley

By Joanna Langfield

Guillermo del Toro’s remake of the 1940’s film noir is appropriately creepy. It’s also weirdly cold, which, sadly, neutralizes the whole damn thing.

We really are in a village of the damned here, a traveling circus whose players are a mash of odd talents, men and women who form a family they could not find outside the tent. So when Bradley Cooper signs on for a few days, thinking he can hide out and raise a few bucks, he slowly becomes engrained. There’s the clairvoyant team that teaches him a thing or two, the manager who shares a few secrets, the beautiful trickster he convinces to run away with him, bringing what they learned to what they think is a better life. Ah, but is it?

Cooper and Rooney Mara are fine as the ambitious couple, Toni Collette and David Strathairn are as warmly peculiar as they should be, as the unfortunate role models. And Willem Dafoe, in a key but small role, is a treat. But things don’t really start rolling until Cate Blanchett shows up, sleek and strange, enlisting Cooper in a twisty scheme involving big wigs and big money.

Del Toro, who knows his way around horror and mystery, stages this nightmare with polish. And the performances add glamour, too. But, oddly, as melodramatic and evocative as things are, we never get tightly wrapped up in most of it. It’s not enough to feel sad for a character who doesn’t last too long or for what should be a whopper of a finale. We need to be emotionally invested enough early on, to have that whopper hurt us, too. That doesn’t happen. Reacting, as event unfold, with something akin to “well, that’s interesting” isn’t enough. And we leave this nightmare feeling as if it were only a weird dream.