Warning: The below contains spoilers for “Nightmare Alley”
“Nightmare Alley” is unique in filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s filmography in a couple of different respects. For one, it’s his first film without any supernatural elements whatsoever. This is a film entirely about humans set in the real world. But for another, it’s inarguably his darkest and bleakest film yet.
Bradley Cooper stars as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a loner and a drifter who finds himself working for a carnival, where he learns/steals a mentalist act from an older couple (played by Toni Collette and David Strathairn). Now armed with the appearance of being able to read peoples’ minds, Stan makes his way to New York City and begins putting on shows, which puts him in the crosshairs of an esteemed psychiatrist named Lilith (played by Cate Blanchett). From there, this film noir takes various twists and turns before landing on an ending that lodges itself in the back of your mind and refuses to leave.
Below, we delve into that dark “Nightmare Alley” ending and how it thematically connects the film as a whole.
A Con Gone Wrong
After Stan makes it big in New York City, he begins working in tandem with Lilith who understands he’s a con man and feeds him information about her powerful patients that he can then use to amaze them. This puts him on a collision course with Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a tremendously wealthy and enigmatic individual who Lilith warns is dangerous.
Indeed, Stan discovers that Grindle years ago forced his lover to have a miscarriage, which resulted in her death. He’s haunted by the loss, and after a few sessions for which Stan is paid handsomely, Grindle becomes frustrated and demands that Stan conjure his dead lover in physical form. So, Stan ropes his partner Molly (Rooney Mara) into the gambit, albeit reluctantly. She dresses up as Grindle’s former lover and “appears” to him one night on the grounds of his mansion.
The plan almost immediately goes wrong, as Grindle refuses to stay back and instead walks right up to the figure, who he then realizes isn’t his lover at all. He becomes enraged, assaulting Molly, and then Stan proceeds to beat him to death, bashing in his face. Stan and Molly go on the run, but as Molly noted earlier she’s had enough – she abandons him shortly after the incident.
After killing Grindle and being abandoned by Molly, Stan makes his way to Lilith’s office where he intends to retrieve the money she’s been stashing for him. She puts it in a briefcase and sees him on his way, saying, “I really do love you, you know” as he walks towards the door. Stan pauses and removes his hat. Something’s not right. Lilith’s voice drops and she asks if she laid it on too thick. It’s at this moment that Stan opens the briefcase to reveal that she stashed it full of $1 bills, not $100s – she’s stolen all his money. The con man has been conned.
Lilith mocks Stan’s outrage and is openly disgusted by his obsession with the money. “You are such a disappointment,” she tells him. “The money doesn’t matter to me. It means everything to you, doesn’t it? You’re a small, small man.”
Lilith pulls out her little gun and shoots at Stan, with the bullet grazing his ear. After a physical struggle, and with the police on their way, Stan stumbles out of the office and escapes.
So what was Lilith up to? She was playing Stan from the beginning of their partnership, with the implication that their first interaction – where he sized her up and offered a withering reading in front of a crowd in which he suggested she’s alone and suicidal – soured Lilith. But she also saw in Stan an opportunity to take out Grindle, who it’s implied physically assaulted Lilith at one point. In a film full of monsters of various shapes and sizes, Lilith is outed as femme fatale who always comes out on top.
Born to Geek
After fleeing Lilith’s office, Stan hitches a ride on a train and is now living among the homeless, where he opens a paper to see that Toni Collette’s character Zeena is headlining her own show. Stan, meanwhile, has lost everything he gained and after being lured to drink by Lilith earlier in the film, is now in full alcoholic mode.
Some time later, we see Stan stumbling into a carnival where he begs the boss (played by Tim Blake Nelson) for a job as a mentalist. The carny boss says he’s not so much into mentalist acts and Stan is on his way out the door when the boss says he may have something for him. He pours him a drink, and says the job is only temporary, “until we can find a real geek.” The entire exchange mirrors the moment earlier in the film where Willem Dafoe’s Clem explained to Stan exactly how he lures someone into being a geek (i.e. a carnival performer known to perform grotesque or shocking acts) – find someone down on their luck, preferably alcoholic, and insist it’s only a temporary gig.
When the carny boss asks Stan if he’s up for it, Stan starts laughing. A big smile comes across his face, and tears well in his eyes. “Mister, I was born for it,” he replies while smiling. At long last, Stan knows exactly who he is: he’s a geek.
How the Ending Connects the Film as a Whole
The idea of Stan being a geek is threaded throughout the entire film (and del Toro told TheWrap that ending was a “North Star” for he and Cooper). The movie opens with Stan literally lighting his father’s dead body on fire, and we learn later that he killed his father by exposing him to the elements. He consciously or unconsciously killed Pete (David Strathairn) by switching up the bottles of liquor, and he used and abused Molly to his own gain. Through it all, Stan feels like he’s in power, and yet he only has the illusion of power until the rug is pulled out from under him.
While the carny boss at the end of the film has dialogue that mirrors Clem’s speech, there’s another character who gets Stan to geek before then: Lilith. She employs the same techniques, albeit differently, to get Stan to bend to her will. She makes clear she doesn’t need him, she gets him to believe she cares about him and she even convinces him to take up drinking. Stan agrees to geek at the end of the film, but in truth, Stan has been a geek this whole time. He just didn’t know it.