Movie review

It’s the holiday season, so how about a dark, noirish tale about some very bad people? Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” set in the 1930s, has at its center a more-or-less amoral grifter: Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who’s got a dark secret in his past and shows up one day at a low-rent carnival, seeking food, shelter and work. “Folks here, they don’t make no nevermind of what you done,” he’s told, and Stanton for a while finds a home there, quietly eyeing the carnival folk and learning how to take advantage of those who line up seeking wonder, coins in hand. It’s the schooling he needs for what happens in the film’s second half: a new career as a high-end con man to the rich, aided by a mysterious psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) with her own agenda.

Based on an ink-dark 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham — previously filmed in 1947, starring Tyrone Power — this “Nightmare Alley” is a gorgeous exercise in style and mood. Del Toro, with masterful cinematographer Dan Laustsen (they collaborated to beautiful effect previously on “Crimson Peak” and the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water”), creates a detailed, eerie world: the carnival, with the faded reds and yellows of the funhouse and carousel; the lights that go soft in the night; the striped tents that can be taken down seemingly in an instant, leaving nothing but memories behind. The film’s second act takes place in more elegant surroundings — the glowing wood of the psychiatrist’s gorgeous art deco office; the lavish grounds of a millionaire’s estate where snow whirls like quiet dancers — and yet it’s just as malevolent. And Nathan Johnson’s eerie score seems to wrap itself around the melodrama, spreading the way a dark liquid does if you drop it into a glass of water.

And the cast, all of whom have the kind of faces that the big screen loves, are a picture — and a pleasure. Rooney Mara, as a carny who’s not quite entirely slipped to the dark side, smolders quietly; you’re never sure what she’s thinking but you can’t look away. (Though she and Blanchett barely share a scene here, it’s a pleasure to see both of them in period costumes and think of Todd Haynes’ glorious “Carol.”) It’s no stretch at all to think of Blanchett as a great noir villainess — watch how she can harden her face and instantly change it, as if she’s donning a mask before our eyes. And Cooper, carrying the movie from start to finish, has a final, devastating close-up that’ll haunt you for quite a while. Darkness has enveloped this man; he won’t wake from his own nightmare.

“Nightmare Alley” ★★★½ (out of four)

With Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, from a screenplay by del Toro and Kim Morgan, based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham. 150 minutes. Rated R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language. Opens Dec. 15 at multiple theaters.

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