The upcoming psychological thriller from macabre maestro Guillermo Del Toro Nightmare Alley is made up of a dream cast (see what we did there?). Out in UK cinemas now, this is not the first time the story of Stanton Carlisle has been told.
Del Toro's version is the second film adaptation of a novel of the same name from 1946. Leonardo DiCaprio was initially attached to the film but was eventually replaced by Bradley Cooper.
He joined a top-flight lineup including Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and David Strathairn, amongst others. For who they play and what they got up to, you'll have to read on to find out.
Note: Nightmare Alley spoilers follow.
The movie begins with a shot of a man (who we later learn is named Stanton) burning down a house with a body inside. Then he happens upon a carnival where he is drawn in by the ringleader Clem (Dafoe) who is riling up the crowd with the 'geek' – a man who chases and eats live chickens.
Clem gives Stanton a job, and Stanton soon ingratiates himself with the carnival's mentalism act, married couple Zeena and Pete (Colette and Strathairn respectively), who teach him the art of cold reading and the coded language they use for their act — emphasising that they never do 'spook shows'. He also begins to develop feelings for a girl named Molly (Mara) who electrocutes herself onstage.
Stanton acts as an MC/Hustler for Zeena, but ever ambitious, he has his eye on running away with Molly and opening his own act. One day, while fetching moonshine for Pete, he "accidentally" gives Pete a bottle of wood alcohol instead and kills him.
Later, the police raid the carnival but Stanton sweet-talks the sheriff and saves them. He leaves with Molly and they start a new life as their own mentalist double act – one which has less of an aversion to the supernatural than its predecessor (though Molly is put off by it).
One night a woman in the audience challenges Stanton to guess the contents of her purse, which Stanton does successfully, but he goes on to humiliate her in front of the audience.
After the show, he grants a private audience to the woman, Dr Lilith Ritter (Blanchette), and Judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill) the latter of whom wanted Lilith's opinion before engaging Stanton to help contact his son, who died in No Man's Land during the Great War. To Molly's surprise, Stanton accepts the offer along with Lilith's business card.
He visits Lilith, who surreptitiously records her first session with Stanton; she is curious about him, despite knowing he is a con man, and the two decide to use her insider knowledge from treating Kimball's wife (Steenburgen) to extort Kimball.
They begin an affair while perpetrating their con, and in the process Stanton reveals the guilt he feels having accidentally killed Pete and purposefully killed his father, who was an alcoholic and beat him.
Kimball, convinced of Stanton's abilities, introduces him to a man named Ezra Grindle (Jenkins), who Lilith warns Stanton is dangerous, but Stanton begins the same con on Grindle. Lilith begrudgingly tells him that Grindle's lover Dory died after he forced her to get an abortion, and Stanton uses this to ingratiate himself with Grindle.
Stanton, having previously been a proud teetotaler, begins to drink. Meanwhile, an unhappy Molly grows suspicious of Stanton's actions and decides to leave him.
Grindle demands more and more from Stanton, eventually asking him to materialise Dory, a feat that will only work with Molly's help and though she initially agrees, she abandons him on the day of the plan. Stanton finds her though and convinces her to help, which she does, swearing she will leave him when the con is over.
On the night of the so-called summoning, Grindle reveals that he hurts women and Stanton begins to lose control of the situation. Grindle sees Molly/Dory from afar and rushes to her; discovering her to be a fake, he hits her and Stanton jumps in, beating Grindle to death.
With Molly in the car, he runs over Grindle's right-hand man (Holt McCallany) and flees. Molly abandons him for good, so he turns to Lilith for help only for her to reveal that she has been conning him all along, recording their sessions to prove he's a madman infatuated with her as revenge for his humiliation of her.
She shoots him in the ear and as he strangles her the police arrive. Stanton flees again; drunk, homeless, and wanted by the law, he stumbles into a new carnival (run by an unnamed man, in a cameo by Tim Blake Nelson) and spies a curio previously owned by his former boss Clem. He asks for a job as a mentalist, but the boss denies him.
Feeling pity, or perhaps sensing an opportunity, he gives Stanton a drink and then offers him a temporary job as a carnival 'geek', the man who chases chickens and then eats them in front of an audience. When asked if he thinks he can do it, Stanton laughs sadly and says "Mister, I was born for it."
Nightmare Alley is now out in UK cinemas.
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