BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (OPINION) — Few directors working today have the almost unearthly ability to create visual environments as spellbinding and often soul sucking as Guillermo del Toro. He takes sets, costumes and eerie lighting and enhances them to create worlds that the viewer believes exists while at the same time praying they don’t.

Take a look at his “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water” or “Crimson Peak” to see stunning examples of his cinematic magic.

Del Toro’s latest visual manifestation comes in the form of “Nightmare Alley.” The director starts the film in a traveling carnival that resonates with such honesty that you can almost smell the combination of urine and hopelessness.

He then takes down-on-his-luck drifter and grifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) through worlds of high society and low ethical standards. Each setting is as captivating as the last.

This backdrop is for the story of a man who has spent his life living off the trust of others. He is a man of no means but great skill at manipulating people.

Carlisle finds sanctuary in the traveling carnival – the creepiest since the superb TV series “Carnivale” – where he makes friends with clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her washed up mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn).  This is an opportunity for Carlisle to steal a new craft that he can use to swindle the gullible rich people who populate 1940s New York society.

Once Carlisle has successfully stolen all the secrets of “reading minds,” he and the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) leave the stink of the carnival to wade into the hypocrisy of high society. He launches a plan to con a dangerous tycoon (Richard Jenkins) with the help of a psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who is either his greatest ally or most dangerous foe.

There is no question that del Toro is a master at visual elements. That is a strong base for a movie but if a production is to have any chance of success, then it also needs strong performances and a smart script.

The supporting cast is good in “Nightmare Alley” – especially the always dependable Blanchett – but the heart of this film is tied directly to Cooper’s performance. The lion’s share of the tension, uncertainties, manipulation and danger comes through him.

Cooper does a good job slipping into the slimy skin that is Carlisle. He can project the kind of charisma that makes it easy to believe his character can mystify an audience the way a snake charmer controls a cobra. There is also a vulnerability in the way he plays the character that creates the openings needed to make Carlisle arrogantly flawed enough that even he can fall prey to those who know how to manipulate others.

Cooper’s performance in “Nightmare Alley” is as strong as the work he did in “A Star Is Born.” And that work earned him an Oscar nomination.

With two strong elements in place, the overall quality of “Nightmare Alley” comes down to the story that was written by del Toro and Kim Morgan based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham.

The first half of the film is the best. Watching Carlisle slither through the skin-crawling world of the traveling carnival works because the characters are so distinctly drawn. The carnies are like the pawns on a chess board. To the untrained eye, their movements may seem meaningless but each is vital to moving this tale of treachery along.

Where the story begins to become too transparent is when Carlisle starts his big grift. Each step Carlisle takes to steal the fame and fortune he has always coveted is predictable. He is put on a familiar path and never makes an original step.

There has been a lot of praise heaped on the ending of the film. It does have that “Twilight Zone” moment but this is lifted directly from the book. It is the final clue that del Toro and Morgan became complacent in penning the second and third acts.

“Nightmare Alley” stands on the strength of stunning visuals and a praise-worthy performance by Cooper. Even the supporting cast adds merit. But, the writing drifts into the uninspired region too often and you don’t have to be a mind reader to know that impacts the overall quality.

Movie review

Nightmare Alley

3 stars

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, David Strathairm, Richard Jenkins, Cate Blanchett, Ron Perlman.

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: R for sexual content, nudity, language, violence

Running time: 150 minutes.