The Last Spook Show
There’s an old rule in screenwriting that posits the idea that your main character should be likable. Like many rules in the art world, it’s completely wrong. Cowardly studio executives and shallow screenwriting gurus drill down on this concept because it’s easy. They assume that if viewers are stuck with a protagonist that isn’t morally upright, they’ll check out. Put more simply, they assume that viewers are dumb.
Your protagonist doesn’t have to be an icon of virtue — they only need to be interesting. Dirty Harry is nearly as much of a threat to public safety as the crooks he blasts. Ronnie Barnhardt in Observe and Report literally commits date rape. Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street is the cackling id of American capitalism.* If we step outside of cinema for a moment, we’ll be reminded that Tony Soprano was a pure sociopath and that Walter White was a man consumed by resentment.
Would you watch Nightcrawler and root for the deeply repellant Louis Bloom to succeed? God, I hope not.** But you’d watch it vicariously, to witness a magnificently flawed person navigate a system that’s not designed to deal with someone like him. I watch There Will Be Blood for a towering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson’s ornate direction. I certainly wouldn’t want to have a beer with Daniel Plainview.
I think to pull all of that off, you need a partnership between a skilled actor and a talented director. When they’re in sync, a malevolent kind of magic can happen. I wasn’t expecting the partnership of Guillermo del Toro and Bradley Cooper to bear such fascinating and rotten fruit. Their newest film Nightmare Alley is an unforgettable example of strong filmmaking, but trust me when I tell you that you’ll want to brace yourself.
We’re introduced to Stan (Bradley Cooper), dragging a roughly man-sized bundle in a ramshackle house. Scratch that, it is man-sized. He lugs it into a hole in the floor, inspects his work, then tosses in a match. As the bundle, the walls, the whole damn house burns, Stan walks away. With suitcase in hand and cigarette in mouth, he doesn’t even look back. Right out of the gate, we’re learning certain details about who he is, what he values, and what he won’t focus on.
What Stan needs next is a job and a place to lay low. In 1939, that kind of thing isn’t easy to find. He has a kind of devil’s luck, and stumbles upon a shoddy traveling carnival. Clem (Willem Dafoe) is the barker, and he can always use a man willing to do a lousy job for very little pay. In return, he can offer Stan a home, a place where nobody asks pesky questions about the past. Zeena (Toni Collette) is the resident “psychic,” and she’s happy to take Stan under her wing — and allow him to share her bed. Her husband Pete (David Strathairn) has crawled so deeply into a bottle, he barely notices.
Stan is also a man of ambition, and a glance into the cage of the carnival geek reminds him that crowds will believe nearly any nonsense flung at them, provided it’s flung the right way. His eye wanders to Molly (Rooney Mara), a young woman involved in an electrocution act. Her guardian is the strong man Bruno (Ron Perlman), who knows that Stan is no damn good. Can you really blame Molly, though, for falling for the thousand-watt charisma of a sharpie like Stan? He sees a life away from the carnival, silk sheets, champagne, and loads of money. His vision engulfs her.
Time passes. The carnival is firmly in the rearview mirror, and now Stan and Molly have a successful mentalism act in New York. Would it be enough to make a pile of money and retire? No, because Stan has to use his preternatural skill for reading people to prove he’s smarter than the rubes. Is he smarter than calculating psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) or the dangerous tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins)? He’d better be.
After leaving my screening of Nightmare Alley, I was chatting with a small group of other critics. I had mentioned that it was tough for me to sit with the oppressive negativity of Bradley Cooper’s Stan, and that I wished he showed more glimmers of positivity if, for no other reason, that it would have made his downfall even more tragic. It was at that moment that I realized I’d shown my entire ass when another critic replied with, “But there are some people who are just like that.” You know what? She was absolutely right and, like a dope, I’d fallen into the likability trap.
Unsurprisingly, director Guillermo del Toro is too smart to fall into the same trap. He’s one of the best directors alive, and built an impressive filmography of dark supernatural fantasies. There are no rampaging kaijus or lovelorn mermen here. The most terrifying things lurk in the darkness of the human heart, and del Toro knows that’s enough. His film is classic noir, with looming shadows, oodles of bad choices, and atmosphere to spare. If nothing else, I urge you to see this film to marvel at the gorgeous (and often unsettling) production design. From the art deco of Cate Blanchett’s office to the bizarre details of the carnival, del Toro and his department heads have considered all the details. This might be a case of too much of a good thing, because del Toro’s pacing feels sluggish, particularly in the third act. Considering the two and a half hour runtime, pacing problems can be deadly. He could have trimmed and condensed a good fifteen minutes without sacrificing the quality of the narrative. But that first act, the pure pizzazz del Toro brings to the scenes in the carnival, those are worth the price of admission.
Del Toro and his co-screenwriter Kim Morgan adapted their script from the jet-black 1946 novel.*** Like original author William Lindsay Gresham, they understand that this is ultimately a character study of a man with pieces missing. The screenplay focuses on Stan’s habit of clocking the behavior of others and adapting himself to optimize the situation. Intelligently, it also knows that maximum drama is had when Stan has to deal with someone who’s got his number. Morgan and del Toro are also writing about comeuppance on a frequently Biblical level, and when a character mentions that “Nice is different than good,” we see the brutal reality.
Nightmare Alley has a cast that’s a) bananas and b) firing on all cylinders. If you want to see David Strathairn as a tragically noble alcoholic, Willem Dafoe as an amoral swine, Toni Collette as an entertaining fraud, and Ron Perlman as a bruiser with a heart of gold, you’ll find that here. Better yet is Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter, a woman who seems to be ten steps ahead of everybody else, as well as Rooney Mara’s Molly. Mara has a tricky role in that Molly isn’t stupid. She’s a good person who believes swindling people a little is okay, provided you don’t get in too deep.
But this is Bradley Cooper’s show, and I think this might be the best performance of his career so far. For the first ten minutes of the film, he doesn’t say a word. You can see him watching, sizing up everyone around him. When he does speak, it’s the accent of a harmless yokel. For a while, anyway, and his accent comes and goes depending on how sophisticated he needs to sound at any given moment. Yet as observant as Stan is, he’s resolute in his refusal to look into the gaping maw where his soul once resided. Cooper has always been a smart actor, and he knows that his inhumanly good looks and charm can be a formidable weapon. I’d love to see him get an Academy Award nomination, and I’d be delighted if he won.
Don’t make the mistake I made with Nightmare Alley, and wait for a switch to goodness that never comes. The more we get to know the character of Stan, the less we like him, and to repeat the tragic words of wisdom I was told, there are some people who are just like that. There’s no lightness of being, only darkness that never ends.
*It reminds me of a company I worked at where the sales team watched Glengarry Glen Ross for motivation. They couldn’t have missed the point more.
**This should go without saying, but viewership doesn’t equal endorsement. We should all know this, yet we live in deeply stupid times.
***Which was initially adapted into a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power.