Nightmare Alley - slow-burner packs powerful punch in the end

Nightmare Alley, (15), (150 mins), Cineworld Cinemas

Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara in Nightmare Alley
Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara in Nightmare Alley

There’s a brilliant final twist to Guillermo del Toro’s slow-burning Nightmare Alley – the cleverest of flourishes which will make you forget just how long it’s taken to get there.

Guillermo del Toro’s two and a half hour epic is a film which demands patience and ultimately rewards it, sending you home with a grim smile – the tale of a rather mysterious drifter who tumbles into his calling and pushes it and pushes it…

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The film opens with Stanton Carlisle – another superb performance from Bradley Cooper – torching his house and walking away from it, having seemingly dumped a bagged-up body in a hole in the floorboards.

He’s a hustler and a chancer – and chances upon a travelling carnival where he quickly identifies his opportunities.

This isn’t a bright and colourful carnival, but a grim and cruel freak and con show, driven by desperation in the late 1930s, full of dodgy characters plus a streak of ruthlessness with which Stanton clearly feels at home.

He’s taken under the wing of Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), a psychic who weaves her spell through an elaborate code she’s created with her boozy husband Pete (David Strathairn).

When the police descend, Stanton saves the day. Quick-wittedly, he distracts the police chief with some off-the-cuff mentalism of his own – and realises that he too can read all the signs and dress them up as some kind of spooky sixth sense.

And he’s on his way, leaving the carnival behind him with new love Molly in tow, a lovely performance from Rooney Mara as a decent, but slightly naïve girl who falls for his charms without ever quite trusting in them.

Stanton makes the big time, performing to rich audiences and pulling in the crowds – which is how he attracts the attention of ice-cold psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who tries to trip him up publicly, fails and soon enters into an unholy pact with him.

Clearly, if she can back up his tricks with insider information about her former patients, they are on to a winner.

The twist is that you are never quite sure that the super-distanced Ritter really is playing the same game that Stanton is. He’s conned everyone so far. Has he now met his match?

The whole thing is beautifully done, and while it is undoubtedly too long and at times just a touch too leisurely, for the most part the characters intrigue, clever concoctions based on a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham and backed up by a top cast at the top of their game. Rooney’s Molly is out of her depth and doesn’t want to go in deeper; Cooper’s Stanton knows no such restraints but clearly doesn’t quite grasp the dangers he’s running and just who he’s actually up against.

Adding to the pleasure is the sheer evocation of the time, the minute detail with which Guillermo del Toro gives us the ghastly carnival world followed by the wealthy circles to which Stanton aspires.

It’s a film which takes its time, but it tightens its vice effectively in the second half – and that ending... A terrific moment.