Review: Keep an eye on Oscar nominee ‘Nightmare Alley’

A scene from "Nightmare Alley." 

A scene from "Nightmare Alley." 

Searchlight Pictures

Some movies don’t know what they can be. 

They look right. At times, what we hear sounds clear and coherent. They are populated with complex characters who find themselves in situations filled with narrative potential. Yet, despite rich potential, these films don’t achieve what they promise.

Film Summary: Nightmare Alley

Content: Medium. This lavish adaptation of a 1946 novel offers a stylized look at how a drifter searches to create his future.

Entertainment: Medium. Guillermo del Toro's follow up to his Oscar winning "The Shape of Water" dilutes the content with an overwhelming visual experience.

Message: Medium. Because the characters get lost in the production, the film misses the mischief that will enhance a movie thriller.

Relevance: Medium. Anyone who wants to see all the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars may want to check this out.

Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. The look of the film may generate the most chit chat. But this is not a film for the family.

“Nightmare Alley” – a nominee for four Academy Awards including Best Picture – is director’s Guillermo del Toro’s follow up to his Oscar winning “The Shape of Water” from 2017. Like its predecessor, this new film is beautiful to look at with a production design that creates a distinct visual world. And, in a similar way, del Toro creates a mysterious world where characters explore how to maneuver through unusual situations. Unlike the earlier effort, however, “Nightmare Alley” doesn't seem to know what story it wants to tell. The characters can confuse, the situations may baffle, and the purpose often disappears. And del Toro, despite his talent in making the visuals work, lets his script – that he co-wrote – get stuck with lots of conflict and few paths to resolution.

A drifter named Stanton - played by a solemn Bradley Cooper - doesn’t know what to do with his life. He stumbles into a 1940s carnival filled with artificial glamor and hidden hazards. Searching for answers and direction, Stanton encounters a couple who work for the enterprise; she claims to read minds, he pretends to complete small jobs. Together, they welcome the hungry traveler, feeding his ambitions to accomplish and experience. As Stanton soon begins to outgrow the couple’s expectations, he navigates his way into a complex world filled with con artists where he ultimately meets his deceptive match.

Working from a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Greshman, and reaching beyond the approach of the first film adaptation made in 1947, del Toro offers minimal details to explain his characters’ efforts to maneuver confusing narrative corners. Central to Stanton’s schemes is his layered relationship with a psychologist, beautifully rendered by Cate Blanchett, who serves the schemer with information and insight to feed his hunger for deception.

Moviemaker del Toro treats this content with so much respect that he misses the sense of mischief essential to telling this type of story. His characters, forever serious, become difficult to access, rarely revealing what may frighten. And the director’s magic with a movie camera – along with a big budget for production design – almost enables the look of the film to overwhelm its narrative. Inside of this visual epic is a tragic human story fighting to be seen and heard. Blanchett survives the confusion with a portrayal that immediately grabs our attention and makes us want to see more. But Cooper doesn’t look confident in his interpretation until the final moments. Only then do we see what this capable actor could have done with the role. But that’s too little, too late.

For a clearer view of “Nightmare Alley,” check out the 1947 original.

“Nightmare Alley” runs 2 hours, 30 minutes, is rated R for “strong, bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language.” The film is playing in theaters and streaming.