TL;DR – Stan Carlisle is damaged goods. He’s not asking, “To be or not to be?” He’s asking, “To be damned or not be damned? That is the question.”
Review (warning: spoilers)
With acclaimed cinematographer Dan Lausten, and a star studded cast, director Guillermo del Toro has delved into the film noir storytelling with his distinctive style and vigour. Based on the novel of the same name by William Gresham, Nightmare Alley is about the duplicity of human nature and how some individuals who are damned, flirt with the idea of redemption, but ultimately embrace their own undoing.
Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is damned. Through flashbacks, he was abused by his alcoholic father and consumed with hatred. A hatred that reached the point where Stan kills his father and burns his body and their home to ashes.
Living as a vagrant, Stan stumbles upon a carnival and manages to secure some work. He meets an assortment of individuals that carry their own scars, and becomes a carny himself looking to fleece patrons and customers with their shocking acts and shows of deception.
One of these shocking acts that Stan witnesses is the geek show, where a deranged man eats a live chicken. The resident carnival barker, Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), explains that geeks are found and made. Clem goes around finding drunks and offers them temporary employment while giving them opium-spiked alcohol to get them to stay. The geeks essentially are drug addicted, starving, emaciated men kept in cages and become animals for the ‘entertainment’ of carnival patrons. Stan swears he will never become a geek.
Instead, he starts learning the tricks of the trade to become a mentalist. The clairvoyant act at the carnival is conducted by Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), and Stan discovers they have a secret code and cold reading tricks to discern the histories, characteristics and traits of patrons. He endeavours to master these techniques.
Stan also falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), who is the carnival’s electric girl (her act involves pretend electrocution). He eventually convinces Molly to leave the carnival with him, and they go out on their own performing psychic shows.
They achieve a level of success, and while Molly is satisfied, Stan is not. During one show, he is confronted by a psychologist, Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who attempts to reveal him for a fraud but fails. Stan is intrigued by Lilith and finds out that she holds a treasure trove of dirty secrets with regard to the social elite because of her job. Lilith agrees to share information she has on a judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill) in exchange for some background truth about Stan. The exchange is made, and Stan successfully swindles Kimball and his wife of a considerable sum of money.
Molly begs Stan to stop, but Stan can’t help himself and goes back to Lilith to get more dirt. Lilith suggests a former patient of hers named Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a rich recluse who, in his past, forced a woman named Dorrie to have an abortion. The abortion was botched and Dorrie died.
Stan manages to convince Ezra that he can talk to Dorrie and have her materialise in front of him, so he can ask her for forgiveness. Stan wants Molly to act as Dorrie’s ghost. Initially, she refuses but eventually relents indicating to Stan this would be the last time she would be a part of his deception and that she intends to leave him.
The ruse goes smoothly up to the point where Molly (pretending to be Dorrie) appears and Ezra gets close enough to her to realise he has been swindled. Ezra threatens to destroy Stan and hits Molly. Stan launches himself at Ezra and beats him to death much to Molly’s horror.
Stan orders Molly back to the carnival. He seeks out Lilith and discovers that she has betrayed him. Or rather she has been playing her own game of deception, stolen all the money he has swindled and made him the fool. In anger, he tries to kill her but security comes and he flees.
Everything comes full circle as Stan is now a vagrant once more and with the added bonus of being an alcoholic like his father. The final scene sees him arrive at a new carnival searching for work. The carnival barker turns down his offer to work as a mentalist but offers him a drink. Stan downs the alcohol, and the barker pauses and says there is one job that Stan could do. He could temporarily be the carnival geek, to which Stan responds with maniacal laughter that he would be perfect for the role.
Like I said damned.
Overall, the film keeps you engaged even though you will struggle to find redeeming values in any of the characters. Molly is the only character with any integrity, she represents Stan’s hope for redemption but ultimately he fails. Guillermo del Toro draws faithfully from the source material and the cast show off an ability to portray characters in a multi-layered way that will have a tiny part of you saying they are interesting even though you don’t want them to be.
Stan is a tragic figure and trapped in a spiral where he figures if he is going to go down, he might as well go down fighting and rich. But even then it is all an act of futility as he is undone by those who are even more damaged than he is.
His path to self-destruction was brutal, visceral and completely ironic, and I was glad that Molly didn’t get dragged down with him.
In the hands of lesser men, this film could have been so bleak and dark that it would have been too bitter a pill to swallow, but Guillermo del Toro does the noir genre justice and when you have the acting talents of Cate Blanchett oozing femme fatale, Bradley Cooper striving for some end to the tunnel (even if that end is insanity), Willem Dafoe ruthlessly delicious as the carnival barker, and Toni Collette born to be a psychic hustler, you’ll have enough of your favourite spirit to wash that bitter pill down.
8.5 out of 10