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'Nightmare Alley' Review: Bradley Cooper makes breaking bad look intoxicating

A slow burn battle of wits between Cooper and Cate Blanchett enlivens Guillermo del Toro's latest old fashioned with a sinister twist tale.
Credit: Searchlight Pictures

ST. LOUIS — From the moment we lay our eyes on Stan Carlisle, it's easy to understand why he shouldn't be trusted. Played impeccably by Bradley Cooper, Stan isn't outright evil but is devilishly charming, so the audience is kept on the tightrope with this anti-hero--one that's impossible to take your eyes off.

It's Guillermo del Toro's ingenious ability to paint Stan's intentions and backstory in darker shades of gray early on in "Nightmare Alley." The latest sinister kid production from del Toro, this roguishly gorgeous horror/thriller hybrid creates an intoxicating world of untrustworthy souls doing whatever possible to stay ahead.

During a vicious cycle of award fare, "Nightmare Alley" stands out for its bold portrayal of the dark side of humanity--one that revolves around the circus.

Cooper's Stan is a carny, aka someone who travels from carnival to carnival looking for work and possibly "an angle." The angle chosen by our leading man is a trick show performed by Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn), one involving magic and experience. The two things Stan doesn't have but procures over the first hour set the stage for his trepidations later in the film.

Whether he's sporting a slick mustache or just a five o'clock shadow, Cooper commands the screen. If you've ever wondered if those blue eyes could pierce the screen with beguiled intentions and what it would look like, "Nightmare Alley" gives you an extended glimpse. It's a treat to watch a top-of-their-game movie star try something different, more complex, on for size. Whenever the two hour and 30 minute running time starts to feel heavy, Cooper guides the viewer through the abyss of decrepit actions.

But he's got ample support. In addition to the ravishing Collette and always good Strathairn, Cate Blanchett turns in award-caliber work as the thorn that starts to grow in Stan's side. A psychiatrist with her own game to play, her Dr. Lilith Ritter teams up with Stan for a daring con (Richard Jenkins stealing every scene) that could get them both killed.

While I didn't care much for her over-the-top gotcha talk show host in "Don't Look Up," Blanchett settles quite nicely into Lilith's shoes. It's her evolving relationship with Stan that sets the stage for the third act, one that keeps you guessing and wondering all the way up the heartbreaking final line.

That is... for people who didn't read the novel before the movie. Fear not, Kim Morgan and del Toro adapt William Lindsay Gresham's book, treating it with care while adding their own recipe to the mix. If "The Shape of Water" dialed into the wretchedness of government control amid an unlikely love story, "Nightmare Alley" likes to play in the shadows of human action and intent, pulling a few classy pages from Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" in its intelligent portrayal of magic's death grip.

Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Holt McCallany and the ever-talented Rooney Mara deliver fine performances in simplistic roles, ones more engineered to push the movie forward instead of standing alone. But it's the slow-burn dance session between Cooper and Blanchett, a couple of misfit souls carrying alternate goals, that pushes del Toro's epic-scaled thriller into the upper echelon of entertainment.

Hearing Stan tell Lilith that he knows she is bad for the simple fact that he is bad as well, and her reaction to it, carries a certain spice that only high-caliber actors can deliver properly.

Dan Laustsen's cinematography is engrossing and inviting, keeping the viewer guessing for the next shock. Tamara Deverell's production design and Luis Sequeria's costumes make for a nice couple, while Nathan Johnson's score rightfully ratchets up the tension.

What del Toro is doing here is reinforcing the idea that human beings are built with equal amounts of good and bad in their hearts, but their ledger starts clean. It's their choices and the ensuing reaction of the people who lie in their wake that informs how their life will go. As much as civilians are scared of the beast that could lie in our closet or under the bed, it's the beast in us that should scare the most. Guillermo charged hard at that theory here, and made a great film.

If you prefer an old fashioned adult drink with a twist, consider "Nightmare Alley" this weekend.

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