Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper star in "Nightmare Alley." Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios
LOS ANGELES, Dec. 14 (UPI) -- Nightmare Alley is Guillermo del Toro's most accomplished movie. It still has enough of the outcast society and macabre images that are del Toro's forte, but this time, del Toro shows that human nature is the greatest special effect.
Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) wanders into a traveling carnival in 1939 where he gets some quick work helping them set up and break down. Stan learns quickly and shows an aptitude for reading both the audience and his co-workers. After devising one of the show's main attractions, an electric chair for Molly (Rooney Mara), Stan and Molly leave to start their own show.
Two years later, Stan and Molly are upscale performers putting on two shows a night for high- paying audiences. Stan puts on such a convincing mentalist show, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) asks him to do a private reading for Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). Ritter is onto Stan's technique. Their plan is to grift Grindle by offering him the hope of communicating with the spirits of a loved one.
Every stage of the story is fascinating. The carnival portion could be an entire movie with Stan in the protege role in a Star Is Born story. He shows a flair for the dramatic, devising details to enhance Molly's electric chair act. He learns the mentalist act from Zeena (Toni Collette), a fraud psychic who had ways of having her colleagues feed her details about the audience, some of which TV psychics still use today.
The middle portion, where Stan is an A-list act, is also compelling. This is where he puts all the primitive carnival lessons into practice for an unsuspecting wealthy crowd. However, the con on Grindle is where del Toro elevates the tale from showbiz scam to deadly game.
Stan is successful partly because he can read people. He cheats, but if he didn't have undercover assistants feeding him information, he'd still have enough showmanship to manipulate them. Dealing with a character like Grindle, Stan has to keep him on the hook with enough information about his dead lover, but never overplaying it enough to make him suspect Stan is a fraud.
Toying with volatile personal details is deadly and del Toro stretches that tension taut. Then he releases it as the third act spirals. You don't need fantastical creatures. The human ego is much scarier, although when violence does erupt, it is as graphic as del Toro's previous R-rated horror movies.
The above plays out in the typically lush del Toro atmosphere. Del Toro's production set up an immersive carnival where the camera can move fluidly from tent to stage, through all the passageways in between. Nightmare Alley creates distinct strata between the grimey bootstrap carnival and the posh nightclubs and mansions to which Stan is later welcomed. It always feels cold even when it's not snowing, and Cooper will lean into the perfect shadow for dramatic effect.
William Lindsay Gresham's book Nightmare Alley was first adapted into a film in 1947. Del Toro co-wrote the adaptation with Kim Morgan. Their dialogue nails the subtlety of how people can manipulate each other, and the fine line between a good-natured show and a malicious prank.
Matched with the visual style, Nightmare Alley transports you to the edges of psychological intrigue.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.