[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Nightmare Alley.]
Guillermo Del Toro’s 2021 remake of the 1947 film Nightmare Alley offers a star-studded cast, haunting gothic visuals, and a heartbreakingly prophetic tale of greed and power. For the first two acts of its two-hour-and-twenty-minute runtime, it appears to be a fairly straightforward tale of Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle and his thirst for power and status. However, the last third of the film brings back elements extending as far back as the opening sequence, incorporating themes of fate and indulgence into a finale that packs quite the emotional wallop.
To best understand the ending of Nightmare Alley requires a reexamination of its early sequences. After burning an unidentified body and the house it occupied, Stan Carlisle boards a bus, riding it until the end of its route where he comes upon a carnival. In need of pay, food, and shelter, he joins the carnival, offering menial labor in exchange for warm food and a dry cot. He quickly befriends Willem Dafoe’s Clem Hoately who runs the carnival’s geek show, as well as distributes alcohol to the performers. The geek is shown to live in horrendous conditions, being fed a live chicken during a performance and occupying a large animal cage. Stan also befriends Zeena (Toni Collette) and Peter (David Straitharn), a married couple who host a hack magic show, employing hand signals and emphasis on particular words to communicate with one another, which dupes the audience, or “marks”, into believing Peter is a psychic medium.
As Peter mentors Stan in the ways of psychic showmanship, he impresses on him that he must always break the illusion to the mark if things become emotionally involved, and that a man who begins to believe in his own psychic ability and runs a “spook show” will only end in tragedy. Stan, who abstains from alcohol, incorrectly purchases a bottle of wood alcohol for the addicted Peter, who passes in his sleep. Later, Hoately’s geek appears to be fatally sick, and he enlists Stan’s help bringing the body to the hospital. Over dinner, Hoately describes his process of finding geeks; picking up alcohol-addicted homeless men and reeling them in with the promise of an easy day’s work as a geek, manipulating them into thinking it won’t be a long term position.
Proving to be incredibly adept at reading marks and performing magic, Stan sets off from the carnival with his fellow carny and love interest Molly (Rooney Mara). The film then skips forward two years, finding Stan and Molly living comfortably in a luxurious hotel, performing their show for high-class socialites in New York. It’s here that he crosses paths with Cate Blanchett’s Lilith Ritter, a psychologist employed by incredibly wealthy men in the New York social scene.
Stan and Ritter begin a sexual and criminal partnership, with Ritter quietly passing along information about wealthy men she gathered from their psychiatry sessions for Stan to use as psychic impressions on his newfound cash-flush marks. He runs a spook show with Judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill) and his wife (Mary Steenburgen) where he tells them their late son loves them and that they will one day be reunited in the afterlife. He charges an exorbitant fee for these sessions, which he splits with Ritten. They then move to their next mark, the wealthy and reclusive Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). Grindle wishes more than anything to speak to his late lover Dory, who died during a forced abortion.
While the two are scamming Grindle, Ritter convinces Stan to begin drinking, and he grows reliant on alcohol. She reveals that Grindle once attacked her, showing Stan a large scar down her chest that he had inflicted. Stan reveals that the body shown at the beginning of the film was his father, whom he loathed and killed by exposing him to the cold via an open bedroom window. Molly learns of Stan’s affair and attempts to leave, but Stan convinces her to help him in one final illusion; dressing as Dory to appear to Grindle as an apparition for his final trick. In a separate scene, Miss Kimball reminisces about the couple’s meeting with Stan and longing to be with her son as a family, she shoots and kills her husband before turning the gun on herself. With this, the monkey paw effects of Stan’s spook shows have begun.
Late one night at his residence, Grindle is guided to his garden by Stan, claiming he will finally be reunited with Dory. He confides in Stan that he has done horrible things to young women in an attempt to clear his conscience. Molly appears, wearing a white dress and covered in fake blood. Grindle quickly catches on to the deception and slaps Molly, with Stan retaliating by beating him to death. Horrified, the couple flees and parts ways. Stan burns his car and walks to Ritten’s office. She gives him a duffel bag of money before revealing that she has betrayed him. Proving that there’s always someone smarter pulling the strings, Ritten used Stan to exact revenge on Grindle, siphoning him of his money and ending his life while keeping her hands clean. She begins a recorded psychiatry session with Stan, where she frames his ramblings as the words of a delusional drunk, the tapes now giving her leverage as they appear to implicate Stan as the sole criminal. He attacks her, and she calls the police.
Stan hides from the pursuing officers in a train car, later joining with a crew of down-on-their-luck homeless men as they pass a bottle of liquor around a fire. He once again stumbles upon a carnival, and enters the office of its owner (Tim Blake Nelson), claiming that he was once a great mentalist. The owner initially acts uninterested and turns him away, bringing him back with the promise of temporary work as a geek as he pours Stan another drink. (A clear callback to Clem Hoately’s geek explanation earlier in the film.) Beaten down by the consequences of his actions, he smiles, responding “Mister, I was born for it”, as his laughter turns to sobs.
Nightmare Alley tells the tale of a man consumed by greed and self-interest, indulging in superficial things that bring only misery by the end of his story. Despite his attempts to abstain from alcohol, and the warnings of several characters to not become absorbed by his fictitious mentalism, the promise of money, sex, and purpose ultimately lead him to his demise. The final shot of the film holds on Cooper as the realization of his lot in life becomes clear to him.