By the time a mystifying Bradley Cooper utters his first line of dialogue as Stan Carlisle, several minutes into Guillermo del Toro’s lavishly configured take on “Nightmare Alley,” we’ve already seen the character drag a corpse and set a house on fire. A fugitive, not yet from the law but from his own unresolved resentment, the man lands at a 1930s traveling sideshow populated with curious acts of benign mentalism and bizarre cautionary tales.
Those first words said with hesitation are aimed towards the operation’s geek, an alcoholic man dehumanized for vicious entertainment, on the loose from his captor inside a disturbing attraction that warns visitors of damnation. What Stan can’t foresee from this point in the arc of his hasty rise to top-billing enchanter and thunderous downfall, is that he is in fact looking at a mirror.
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