Alfred Hitchcock, in conversation with Francois Truffaut, insisted that audiences can have sympathy for the villains in films. Using his own Psycho as an example, the master of suspense held forth that if we see a crime being committed on screen, at least some part of us aligns ourselves with the perp and wants them to get away with it. With his latest offering, Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro tests this theory to near destruction.
Based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham and previously filmed by Edmund Goulding with Tyrone Power in 1947, Nightmare Alley follows the fortunes of drifter and grifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who flees the bleak Midwest and his own dark past to find himself on the sideshow circuit, taking lowly jobs among the carnival barkers, sideshow acts and freaks.
It’s tough work, but at least he’s not a geek—a dissolute drunk pretending to be a genetic throwback and biting the heads off chickens to the fascinated horror of the crowd. Besides, Stan is a smart, charming guy with no small amount of ambition. He learns mentalism and cold reading—the art of discerning someone’s secrets at first glance—from old carny couple Pete and Zeena (David Strathairn and Toni Collette), and romances fellow carnival performer Molly (Rooney Mara).
It isn’t long before Stan and Molly have their own act and are grifting New York elites as “The Great Stanton” and his lovely assistant. Stan has found success—but then psychologist Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) enters his life, and the possibility of scamming her rich clients using her private notes and Stan’s skills is too tempting to resist…