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Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’ is a dream gone rogue

Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett star in Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’

Bradley Cooper in "Nightmare Alley."Kerry Hayes

Dreams can have a momentum that reality lacks, sometimes a lot more, and “Nightmare Alley” is a dream of a movie. How could it not be? Nightmares are dreams gone rogue. Unfortunately, the actual “Nightmare Alley” is a very different story, momentum-wise.

The dream begins with “Nightmare Alley” being Guillermo del Toro’s first movie since the marvel that is “The Shape of Water”(2017). Del Toro directed as well as co-wrote the adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. That novel was the basis of Edmund Goulding’s cultish 1947 noir. Those are pretty dreamy bloodlines.

Then there’s the cast — dreaminess on the hoof — with Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Tim Blake Nelson, Ron Perlman (remember the fun he and del Toro had with those “Hellboy” movies back in the ‘00s?).


Finally, there are the fabulous production values, though this is part of “Nightmare Alley” as actuality rather than in expectation. Set in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, the movie runs the milieu gamut from carny skank to Deco swank, and the selection and placement of every detail is just so. It’s a wonderful thing when loving care meets such exacting standards of craft.

So? So all of this means “Nightmare Alley” is a great moviegoing experience just waiting to happen — except that it doesn’t. Happen, that is. Instead, the actual movie manages to feel both scrawny and overstuffed. Worse, it feels plodding and dutiful. Definitely not a folly or disaster, “Nightmare Alley” is something even more dismaying coming from talent like this: It’s dull and mediocre.

Willem Dafoe, left, and Bradley Cooper in "Nightmare Alley."Kerry Hayes

The movie begins with a man burning down a house. Flames will recur throughout the film, as will snow. He then gets on a bus; and when the driver announces, “Last stop, end of the line,” he’s not kidding. Cooper plays the gentleman in question, Stan. Stan ends up working for a carnival. As much grift as entertainment, it’s run by Bruno (Perlman). “What’s your pitch, pal?” Bruno asks Stan. It takes a while to find out, and the answer probably surprises Stan even more than Bruno.


A magician, Pete, and his partner, Zena, a mind reader, befriend Stan. They’re played by Strathairn, less dithery than usual, and a happily sour Collette. Clem (Dafoe) oversees a freak show. “Folks here don’t make no nevermind who you are or what you’ve done,” he tells Stan. True enough. The carnival funhouse is called House of Damnation. That’s even truer.

The closest thing “Nightmare Alley” has to a moral center is Miss Molly (Mara), whose sideshow act involves electricity. A different kind of electricity flows between her and Stan. They run away to Chicago.

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in "Nightmare Alley." Associated Press

Two years later, Stan has taken the tricks he learned from Pete and Zena and created a classy nightclub mentalist act, with Molly as his assistant. Cooper in white tie and tails is a sight to see. The actor’s too old for Stan, and that’s a problem, but he does his best. Cooper fans would be better served waiting for his quite-stupendous cameo in “Licorice Pizza,” which opens Christmas Day.

In the audience one night is a psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter. More electricity, though always remember that it’s the current that kills you, not the voltage. Also, if you know your Old Testament, you know to give any Lilith a wide berth. Apparently, Stan skipped Sunday school. As played by Blanchett, Lilith is pure — impure? — ice-goddess vamp. It’s a real star turn, though that’s not necessarily the same thing as a good performance. By this point, those aforementioned production values have claimed the starring role.


Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in "Nightmare Alley." Kerry Hayes/Associated Press

Various things happen, none of them good — literally, none. Noir doominess has kicked in. Usually, that’s a good thing in a movie. Who doesn’t like it when bad things happen to (mostly) bad people? A truly unexpected scene involving Steenburgen as a wealthy duped matron is a jolt of electricity — that word again — but it just underscores how . . . inert everything else has been and will continue to be.

“Nightmare Alley” doesn’t lack for action. It’s just that the action feels mechanical, a going through the motions. It’s a sincere going through the motions. It’s a committed going through the motions. But it’s still a going through the motions. Worse than a dream that’s a nightmare is a dream that’s a form of sleepwalking.



Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by del Toro and Kim Morgan; based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Starring Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, David Straithairn, Toni Collette. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 140 minutes. R (violence, sexual content, nudity, language)

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.