Adapted from a 75-year-old novel (previously turned into a movie with Tyrone Power), the film focuses on a young stranger who leaves behind a scarred past and stumbles into the company of a traveling carnival in the 1930s (the vibe of the HBO series “Carnivale” is strong), eventually graduating from lifting and hoisting to mastering the mentalist act.
Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle should seemingly be younger, a bit of casting that requires a certain suspension of disbelief at first. Putting that aside, the movie doesn’t fully kick into gear until about halfway through its 2 ½-hour running time, as Stanton decides to leave and cash in with his psychic routine in the big city, running off with the wide-eyed Molly (Rooney Mara).
It’s in that setting where Stanton encounters Lilith Ritter (Blanchett), a cool and alluring psychologist who has the potential to open doors among the rich and powerful. He also ignores the warnings from his carny bosses to avoid doing a “spook show” by pretending to speak to the dead, using his reading skills to soothe the emotionally wounded elite to which she introduces him by saying what they want to hear about departed loved ones, an increasingly perilous grifting act.
Still, “Nightmare Alley” spends too long spinning its wheels before getting to the more pertinent twists about the dangers of conning the wrong people, as well as the shadowy motivations of all concerned.
Del Toro’s movies are inevitably lush, and the casting and atmosphere here provide a significant come-on to film noir aficionados, who will probably catch up with “Nightmare Alley” over time. As for the immediate challenge, that pitch might not be as effective in luring people into the theatrical tent.
“Nightmare Alley” premieres Dec. 17 in US theaters. It’s rated R.