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Film / Nightmare Alley (2021)

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"Mister... I was born for it."
"Is he man or beast?"
Clement "Clem" Hoately

Nightmare Alley is a Psychological Thriller Film Noir directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by del Toro and Kim Morgan. It is based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham and is the second film adaptation of the novel following the 1947 film starring Tyrone Power.

Featuring an All-Star Cast, the film stars Bradley Cooper as Stan Carlisle, an ambitious, manipulative carny who teams up with Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist who is even more dangerous than he is. Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, and Rooney Mara, among others, also appear.

It had a wide release on December 17, 2021. It had its premiere on December 1 of the same year.

Previews: Teaser Trailer, Official Trailer.

This film features the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: Stan speculates that Dr. Ritter had a mother who emotionally abused her and made her feel worthless. Her reaction indicates that he likely wasn't wrong.
  • Actor Allusion: Based on the details of the gory aftermath of his character's death that involves the top of his head ripped off with his brains exposed after Stan runs him over with his car, Holt McCallany once again dies with his head getting scalped, only this the aftermath of his corpse being shown unlike before.
  • Adaptational Villainy:
    • Clem is slightly less worse in the book as he “just” lures potential geeks with alcohol. In the film he spikes the drinks with opium to get them addicted even further.
    • In the book, Ezra Grindle is a vindictive jerk who believes in Screw the Rules, I Have Money!, but in the movie he's a serial abuser (and possibly worse) of women.
    • For that matter, as awful as Stan is, at no point in the book did he commit patricide.
  • Advertised Extra: Zeena is a secondary role, yet appears on the poster with the three main characters.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Sure, Stan is a con man, a Jerkass who killed his dad and a cheater. But it's hard not to feel bad for him when he desperately agrees to take a "temporary" job as a geek in a carnival, knowing the fact that he will be treated like an animal while he's drugged with opioid and kept in a cage until he is no longer useful just like other geeks. Even more heartbreaking when Stan breaks out into mixed laughter and sobbing when he agrees to take the job.
  • The Alcoholic:
    • Pete, a washed-up old mind reader who made the mistake of believing his own hype. He's kind, but his drinking problem consistently gets the best of him.
    • The geek (guy who bites the heads of chickens) at the circus. Clem explains that basically every geek is a drunken wreck, since no one else is willing to do what the geek has to do.
    • Stan is initially teetotal and protests a bit too much that he never drinks, but once he gets in a bit too deep into his con of Grindle, he starts drinking and rapidly proves to be an alcoholic. He mentions that his father had also struggled with alcoholism, and "went white ribbon" (a reference to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union; i.e., stopped drinking) when Stan was ten.
  • Alternate Monochrome Version: The film features an official black-and-white version that saw a limited theatrical run that would also become available for streaming. True to its homage to classic Film Noir, the colors in this film are already quite limited and dark, with director Guillermo del Toro going in ensuring that this true monochrome version was much easier.
  • Always Someone Better: Stan is an improvement over Pete with a mentalist act, mostly due to being reliable and sober. Stan himself is outclassed by Dr. Ritter, who is a professional psychologist, rather than self-trained mentalist.
  • Ambiguous Situation:
    • Did Stanton intentionally kill Pete or was it an accident? Clem had already warned him not to mix up the moonshine with the wood alcohol, but despite him knowing that info, it's possible Stan made a genuine mistake. Additionally, he clearly feels terrible about what he's done, but Stan also seems to be haunted over murdering his father, and that was unambiguously intentional. And then there's the matter of cause. Pete was nothing but good to Stan, but he was also standing in his way of mastering the mind reading con. Additionally, the implication that Stan saw Pete as a parental figure means he may have imprinted whatever negative traits he saw in his own father onto Pete, driving him to off him as well. On that front, it's worth remembering that Stan's father was an alcoholic like Pete.
    • The connection between Lilith Ritter and Ezra Grindle, on account of their respective Noodle Incidents. Lilith reveals to Stan a large scar in the center of her chest that she apparently got from crossing a powerful client, while Grindle later confesses that he has abused many women in his grief over the death of Dorrie. It's possible that Lilith was one of the women Grindle wronged, which would certainly explain why she manipulated Stan into murdering him specifically. However, it is just as possible that he wasn't the one who scarred her and that she only chose him because she knew his personality would undermine Stan's con. It could potentially even be a combination of the two.
  • Arc Symbol: Eyes reoccur in the narrative, alongside the idea of seeing and being seen. The most obvious representation of this is in the baby-in-a-jar Enoch, who has a gigantic third eye in his forehead.
  • Art Deco: The second half of the movie, set in Buffalo, New York, revels in this aesthetic. Dr. Ritter's office in particular is a gorgeous example of Deco opulence, while Grindle's building is in a starker, white-toned version of the style, setting him up as a colder and more severe antagonist. Deco is often used to represent the hubris of the pre-War order, which ties into her and Stan's own hubris.
  • Asshole Victim: Downplayed with Ezra Grindle. He did force an abortion on his girlfriend that resulted in her death and would only continue to hurt more women from then on, using his wealth to cover up his own wrongdoings. On the other hand, he's clearly been living with the guilt of what he did to Dorrie and is ultimately killed when he discovers Stan's con, which preyed on said guilt.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Zeena briefly cheats on Pete with Stan, but she still speaks fondly of him and his skills as a mentalist, and she is absolutely devastated when he dies.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Mentalists such as Stan and Zeena, as well as Lilith, are skilled in cold reading, picking up subtle clues about the mental states and backstories of others just from a glance. This is actually deconstructed in a fashion, as Pete warns very sternly that cold-reading is highly addictve and often leads to the cold-reader going way over their heads. He's correct, as Stan's story proves.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Although not exactly a bad guy, Ritter gets away with her crimes by the end of the movie by pinning all the blame on Stan, who also isn't exactly a good guy either.
  • Batman Gambit: Lilith's plan to ruin Stan and possibly also kill Grindle had a chance of not succeeding if Grindle took what Stan claimed at face value and didn't run up to Molly while she was disguised as Dorrie. It's a good thing she knew Grindle well enough from their therapy sessions to surmise that he'd be too impatient to play along with Stan's con and knew Stan well enough to guess that he would succumb to his inner demons and kill Grindle in a panic.
  • Beard of Sorrow: In the end, Stan grows his facial hair from a mustache to a full beard, showing that he became a homeless drunkard and a broken man who is forced to work as a geek (a carnival performer who bites the heads off live animals).
  • Being Evil Sucks: As in most of del Toro's movies. Stan's actions bring him no joy.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Stan, while hooked to a lie detector, no less, goes from knowing that his spiritualist act is a con to considering himself the real deal. Pete even mentions this earlier as the point where a con man is doomed if he goes any further and why he had to give it up as he began to believe his own manipulations.
  • Benevolent Boss: Clem treats most of the carnies decently, mainly due to Pragmatic Villainy to keep his business afloat. The geek is the main exception.
  • Bloody Handprint: Stan leaves one while fleeing Dr. Ritter's office at the climax.
  • Big Fancy House: Grindle lives in a positively enormous compound with solid marble interiors.
  • The Big Guy: Ron Perlman as Bruno, an aging-but-still-very-tough circus strongman.
  • Big Guy, Little Guy: The hulking strongman Bruno and the dwarf Major are always seen together, working in tandem either in their act or outside of it.
  • Body Motifs: Crossing over with Arc Symbol, eyes are recurring visual elements to cue in the themes of seeing and being seen.
  • Book Ends: The movie starts and ends the same way: with Stan wandering into a circus penniless and seeking employment after committing murder. The first act Stan observes is the Geek biting off the head of a chicken and the conclusion has the manager roping him into that same position. Early on, Clem also introduces Stanton to "Enoch", a deformed baby in a jar who oversees Clem's proceedings. Enoch pops up again in that final scene.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: A doctor's bag, but it plays the same function.
  • Break the Haughty: Stan goes from smooth scam artist to drunken hobo by the end of the film.
  • The Cameo:
    • Tim Blake Nelson as a carnival ringmaster that Stan encounters at the end of the movie, who rejects his mentalist act and uses Clem's technique to trick Stan into becoming a geek.
    • Jim Beaver as the sheriff who tries to shut down the carnival in the first act but who Stan manipulates into leaving.
  • Circus of Fear: Downplayed in the first half. The circus is eerie, strange, and morally questionable, but there is a sense of community there and it's clearly just a bunch of people doing their jobs.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: The news of the Kimballs' Murder-Suicide is aired on the radio, right when Anderson is listening, during Stan's private seance with Grindle. This tips Anderson to the fact that Stan is more dangerous than he thought and prompts him to check on his boss immediately.
  • Cool Old Guy: Pete is a barely functional drunk and a hustler but he is a kind and intelligent man who has standards he won't cross and clearly likes Stan and is viewed as a mentor and father figure by everyone. The whole carnival is devastated by his death.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Ezra Grindle is massively rich, and tells Stan to his face that he expects to be able to buy his way out of his own guilt over causing Dorrie's death by having Stan fix things for him. In the seance, he also alludes to "hurting" multiple women over the years as a consequence of his obsession with Dorrie.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Stan let his elderly and clearly ill father freeze to death in the middle of winter, opening the window and taking away his only blanket.
  • Cry Laughing: In the final shot of the film, Stan laughs at the bitter irony of his fate when he accepts the job of being a geek, only for his laughter to gradually dissolve into tears.
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique: A "spook show" is when a mentalist performs a climactic phony communication with a viewer's lost loved ones. It is used by Zeena as a stalling tactic when part of her more harmless performance hit a snag, but she doesn't like doing it and tells her mark it was all an act afterwards. Stan is warned by Zeena and Pete that it riles up customers too intensely and could make them obsessed and prone to rash behavior. Stan does it anyway, and defies Molly's order to tell his first "spooked" mark that it was just part of the show. It drives an elderly married couple to murder-suicide and causes Grindle to become obsessed, leading to Stan's downfall.
  • Darker and Edgier: The 1947 film was forced to tone down some of the book's more salacious and lurid content due to The Hays Code. This film has no such restriction, with del Toro promising an R rating, which it receivednote . Notably, in the 1947 movie, Zeena turns down Stan's advances and remains faithful to Pete, while in this movie, she throws herself at Stan within minutes of meeting him. Ezra Grindle is also made a fair bit darker than he was in the book. There are also situations in the movie that are darker and edgier than the book itself (the deaths of the Kimballs, the use of opium on likely geeks, Stan murdering his father and later Grindle).
  • "Dear John" Letter: Fed up with Stan's self-centeredness and ambitions, Molly decides to leave him a breakup letter and heads for the bus station. He manages to catch her at the station and convinces her to do a final job with him.
  • Death by Adaptation: Ezra Grindle is killed by Stan in the climax, as opposed to him surviving the original novel and marrying Ritter. Stan also murders his father; in the novel he just finds him later in his career and insults him before leaving for good.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Stan crosses it in the final scene, laughing and sobbing as he realizes what he's in for.
  • Downer Ending: Not only is the ending bleaker than the 1947 film but is also one of Del Toro's darkest endings. Like the source material, Stan is left a wanted man and is now a drunkard, reduced to being a hobo. Like the film, he becomes a geek at the new carnival. Unlike the movie however (more in line with the original book), Molly has left Stan for good and he is left broken and alone.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Key to the movie is the fact that every single character has some kind of trauma in their past, though not everyone gives us specifics, and a few — such as the gigantic scar on Dr. Ritter's chest — remain noodle incidents.
  • Ethereal White Dress: Invoked. Molly puts on a white dress when pretending to be the ghost of Ezra's deceased sweetheart, Dorrie.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Deconstructed throughout; while several of the film's amoral characters have people that they love, they're still horrible people themselves, and their loved ones often suffer for it.
    • Stan is an amoral, self-important con man, but his love for Molly seems to be genuine. Their relationship degrades in the latter half of the film, with Stan's growing ego leading him to mistreat and cheat on Molly. After Stan's attempt to con Grindle sees two men dead and Stan and Molly themselves shot at, Molly leaves him for good. Additionally, while Stan did care about both Zeena and Pete, he possibly deliberately killed Pete and kept it a secret from Zeena.
    • Ezra Grindle loved his old girlfriend Dorrie deeply, and still feels her loss in the present. However, she died as a result of a botched abortion he forced her to get, and in his grief, he became a serial abuser of women.
    • It's either played straight or deconstructed with Clem regarding Pete. Despite their friendly rapport, he's clearly enabling Pete's alcoholism by giving him continual access to his special moonshine, but he notably never does so as part of his usual horrific program of creating geeks. Like the rest of the carnies, he's also devastated by Pete's sudden death.
    • Grindle's henchman Anderson is arguably the only straight example in the film, having a protective, Undying Loyalty towards his boss.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Even Stan, horrible as he has become, is noticeably unnerved when Ezra reveals how his grief led him to abuse other women with the implication that he may have even murdered some and it's implied his subsequent brutal murder of Ezra with his bare hands was as much outrage over his confession as it was self-preservation.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • Zeena and Pete may be phony psychics who fake their way through tricks and coded language, but they hate making up "ghost stories" to scare audience members about dead loved ones and consider it the key line not to cross. They advise Stan that if this happens he should tell people that it is a deception, to avoid them getting hurt. They're proven right; Stan's refusal to do so with Kimballs results in a tragic Murder-Suicide.
    • Molly goes along with Stan's cons but starts to grow uncomfortable with Stan breaking both that rule and going further than needed such as humiliating Dr Ritter and bringing up her traumatic past even after he won the crowd back from her attempts to expose him. She eventually just leaves him entirely.
  • Evil Gloating: Lilith starts to gloat to Stan over setting him up and why. Unlike typical case, she has everything under control and him trying to attack her is part of the plan to further incriminate Stan.
  • Evil Is Petty: Dr. Ritter manipulates Stan into his own downfall because he, a hill-billy con-man, made her, an actual psychologist, look like a fool in public (and solely to prevent her from destroying his performance, which she was trying to do for no good reason).
  • Evil Versus Evil: The third act pits Stan against Grindle, only to be betrayed by Ritter. All of them are terrible people.
  • Facial Horror: Both Grindle, who is viscerally beaten to death by Stan, and Anderson, whose face is struck by the bumper of Stan's car, have their faces reduced to a gory mess.
  • Fanservice: Molly wears a particularly revealing get up during her Carnival days. An officer even nearly arrests her for indecency before Stan intervenes and distracts the officer with a spook show.
  • Fan Disservice: Lilith opens her top to show Stan the kind of scars she's had over the years in her encounters with men.
  • Fatal Flaw: Stan's are his greed and pride. He develops a very good racket as an entertainer and psychic, gaining wealth, affluence and all the privileges he could wish for but he can't stop himself from trying to go further and gain even more through his scam on Ezra and his pride makes him believe he can pull it off and is too smart to be conned or deceived himself. This results in him losing everything and ending up a broken down alcoholic who is winds up as a geek at a nearby carnival.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Being the geek at a carnival. Bosses always find men who are already homeless and near death by alcoholism and take them in with the promise of steady work, only to lock them up, deprive them of alcohol and food, force them to eat live animals for good in front of spectators and finally be dropped back into the gutter when they are about to die and no longer of any use. Stan is fully aware of this when he accepts the gig at the end.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Clem Hoately successfully takes advantage of people by drawing them in with a whimsical, folksy manner.
  • Femme Fatale: Lillith Ritter, just as she is in the novel and 1947 film, seducing and going along with Stan's schemes only to later betray him and push him over the edge into a downward spiral (which, admittedly, probably would have happened eventually with or without her, given his restless ambition and plotting).
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The geek's attempt to escape from the Hell-themed haunted house, screaming "I'm not like this!" Stan is effectively looking at his own future, the difference being that, having been stripped away of all his artifice and pride, he is exactly like that.
    • Clem warns Stan not to mix up the moonshine, which is drinkable, and the wood alcohol, which is poison. Stan does exactly that, and Pete dies as a result.
    • Clem also tells Stan about his method of recruiting geeks, which involves giving them alcohol laced with opium and promising that the job will only be "temporary". Tim Blake Nelson's ringmaster uses this exact technique on Stan at the end of the film, and Stan is so desperate for work that it works.
    • Zeena and Pete warn Stan not to use the cold reading techniques they taught him to pretend to be a medium, as it's unnecessarily risky. Stan doesn't listen, and the consequences are dire.
    • Stan's early encounter with the geek establishes that he is physically strong enough - and merciless enough - to beat someone to death (or near-death in the geek's case). Guess how he kills Grindle?
  • Frazetta Man: Clem pitches the geek as something like this, asking the audience "Is he man or beast?" Of course, this is all part of the act, and the geek - pathetic though he is - is fully human.
  • The Freakshow: Bruno is The Strongman, Major Mosquito is a dwarf, and Zeena is a Fortune Teller. There's also a tap-dancing contortionist, a guy with hypertrichosis, a fake spider woman, a lot of pickled fetuses, and a geek.
  • Freudian Excuse: Implied regarding Lilith. Stan's speculation that she had an abusive mother who made her feel worthless is implied to be correct, and she later shows off a large scar in the center of her chest that she evidently got from one of her clients. Taking both into account, it can be put together why she has such an obsession with remaining on top and in control. When taking into account the confession of Grindle, one of her old clients, that he abused multiple women, it is also possible that she was one of the women he wronged, which would explain why she manipulated Stan into murdering him in particular.
  • Girls Love Chocolate: Molly is often seen eating chocolate throughout.
  • Gratuitous French: Pete has the tendency to pepper his dialogue with French expressions, presumably because he thinks they sound elegant. It also indicates that he used to perform in much more high-class venues before his employment at the carnival.
  • The Great Depression: The first half of the movie is set during the Depression, with Stan as basically a hobo when he's offered a job at the circus. After a two-year time jump at the mid-point of the film, the Depression comes to an end as World War II begins.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: The first half of the film details Stan getting involved with the carnival, learning some of the mentalist trade and then running off with Molly. The second half has a two-year Time Skip where Stan and Molly have their own high-class act, and Stan finds himself swept into an elaborate con with Lillith to scam rich people with seances.
  • Hates Their Parent:
    • Early on, Pete deduces that Stan hated his father by cold reading him and noting that young men tend to have troubles in their past involving their fathers.
    • Dr. Ritter quickly and easily figures out that Stan hated, and ultimately killed, his father, then went on to kill his "second" older male parental figure, Pete. She concludes, correctly, that Stan would inevitably kill Ezra Grindle.
  • Historical Domain Character:
    • If you look closely at the crowd at the circus run by Tim Blake Nelson's character, you'll spot people who are clearly meant to be Koo-Koo the Bird Girl and Schlitzie, real life circus performers who were active around the time the movie is set. Both of them also appeared in Freaks, whose influence over this movie is quite clear.
    • One of the performers at the circus where the first part of the movie is set is a man with hypertrichosis, who is mostly seen wearing a jacket with rather old-fashioned livery in a clear allusion to Fedor Jeftichew (aka Jo-Jo the Dogfaced Boy), who - in most promotional material and portraits - was shown wearing a very similar jacket. (Though, since the real Jeftichew died in 1904, several decades before the story is set, it's presumably not him but perhaps another hypertrichotic performer who has deliberately modeled himself on him.)
  • Humiliation Conga: Stan goes through one of these at the end of the film. First, his seance goes wrong, resulting in two people dead and Molly abandoning him for good. Then, he learns Lilith cheated him out of the money he cheated Grindle out of. When he tries to attack her, she shoots his ear off and puts all of the blame for the murders on him. Although Stan escapes arrest, he spends an unclear amount of time a penniless and homeless drunk. Then he has to trade his prized watch for booze. Finally, he tries to get a job as a mentalist at new carnival, only to end up getting a job as a geek instead.
  • If You Ever Do Anything to Hurt Her...:
    • Bruno and Major Mosquito, friends of Molly's late father, warn Stan to keep away from her. Bruno even goes full Knight Templar Parent when he catches them together.
    • Anderson gives Stan a similar warning about Grindle.
  • Jabba Table Manners: Both times Stan is shown eating, he isn't so much dining as he is frantically shoveling massive quantities of food into his mouth. Unlike most examples, it doesn't make him appear like a gluttonous slob so much as it makes him look bestial.
  • Jar of the Bizarre: The carnival barker has a collection of pickled punks — deformed fetuses in preservative-filled jars. The star of his collection is a fetus with a gigantic cyclops eye in the middle of its forehead.
  • Karma Houdini: Ritter is never shown receiving any on-screen consequences for her actions other than Stan attempting to strangle her which would only serve to make her story that he is to blame for all the murders more believable.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty:
    • We never see Clem undergo any punishment for his inhumane actions. However, Stanton discovers his most prized fetus in the possession of the ringmaster he meets at the end, who tells him that he bought it from a carnival that was going out of business.
    • Stan never faces any legal punishment for his conning and murder, but their pursuit of him causes him to lose everything, winding up a pathetic, drunken hobo who's so desperate for any kind of support that he accepts the living hell of being a carnival's geek.
  • Kick the Dog: Stan seems to be a pretty decent guy when confronting the geek, but after struggling with him and getting him on the ground, he continues pummeling him purely out of spite.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Pete stopped doing his cold-reading act when it got the better of him. In no uncertain terms he makes it clear to Stan that he should never cross certain boundaries. So does Zeena. And later Molly. If only Stan had listened to any of them...
  • Large Ham: Clem, courtesy of being a carnival owner/barker played by Willem Dafoe. He's much more down to earth when not on the clock, though he's not entirely without showmanship.
  • Laughing Mad: By the end of the film, Stan is reduced to broken, mirthless laughter as he is forced to accept a job as a geek.
  • Lie Detector: Ezra Grindle makes Stan undertake a lie detector test, to find out whether he's a fraud. He’s able to throw it off by doing an impromptu reading of Grindle, keeping his pulse normal.
  • The Lost Lenore: Exploited. Stan's Phony Psychic act mostly revolves around putting people "in touch" with lost loved ones. Grindle is the most overt instance of this, as it's his lost love Dorrie, whose death he blames himself for.
  • Madness Mantra: The (first) Geek is only seen muttering a single garbled, barely-decipherable sentence: "I'm not like this," seemingly as a futile attempt to remind people he was once, in fact, much like them.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Stan basically sees everyone as a mark. He's great at cold-reading people, and knows exactly what wishes and insecurities to tug on to get what he wants from them. Dr. Ritter, however, is even better at the game than he is, and outplays him.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: This is the first Del Toro movie without any explicitly supernatural content, but Zeena believes that her Tarot pack can tell the future. Though we know that the rest of her act is fake and Stan doesn't buy this claim, the Tarot prediction that Stan will suffer a downfall turns out to be accurate. There's also a brief shot where Enoch's jar seems to vibrate of its own accord.
  • Meaningful Background Event: The Second World War. In an early scene, Clem mentions that "that Kraut — you know, the one who looks like Chaplin? He invaded Poland!" As the movie goes on, we occasionally hear news broadcasts about the bombing of Pearl Harbour and America getting pulled into the war.
  • Moral Myopia: Lilith Ritter wants Stan's downfall solely over the fact she humiliated her during his show. Problem is, the only reason why she was humiliated was due to her own ego and trying to expose Stan as a phony, both out of her own hubris. Had she left the man alone with his act, he would never have had to defend it and his credibility in front of the gathered audience.
  • Moving the Goalposts: As defined by Clem, transforming someone into a Geek relies on this: first you promise a easy, temporary job that doesn't involve much. Then you slowly go acclimatizing the mark to the profound debauchery actually required to do the job until the man is in too deep and will just do it.
  • Murder-Suicide: The Kimballs, an elderly couple Stan did a seance for. To be precise, Mrs Kimball believes Stan's act so much that she decides to kill her husband and herself.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Never trust a woman named Lilith.
  • Nice Guy: Pete's a sweet guy and paternal figure to Stan, showing him his old tricks while also trying to warn him off from going too far, for both his and his targets' sake.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Stan beats Grindle to death when the seance goes wrong and the latter realizes he's been scammed.
  • Noodle Incident: Dr. Ritter shows Stan a big scar across her chest, and says that it's a result of making powerful enemies at some point in her life but gives no further details.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Grindle mentions hurting many women throughout the years as a way of coping with his grief but no details are given. Given his wealth and how he lives, one can only imagine what he did wasn't good.
  • Not So Above It All: As Stan gets better and better at his craft, he starts to think of himself as above everyone else, exempt from the insecurities he preys on in other people. He's proven very, very wrong.
  • Obliviously Evil: Stan's an opportunistic con man out for himself, but he tries to claim that his tricks are actually helping people and even seems to convince himself of that.
  • Once More, with Clarity: The movie opens with Stan dragging a wrapped body into the floorboard of an old house and setting it on fire. This image returns several times through short dream sequences, and given the apparent poverty and setting of The Great Depression, there is some ambiguity over what happened. While his father was sick Stan harshly advanced his death by exposing him to the elements, saying "I've always hated you." It's done to heighten the man or monster theme and that Stan was never really a good guy.
  • Patricide: Stan murdered his bedridden father by opening a window in the dead of winter, stealing his blanket, and leaving him to freeze. Over the course of the film, Stan kills two more men (one deliberately, the other possibly accidentally) who are old enough to be his father, symbolically repeating his original act of patricide.
  • Pet the Dog: Stan does a few fairly kind things in the opening scenes of the film, such as go out of his way to put the geek out of the rain, to earn some sympathy from the audience.
  • People Jars: Guillermo del Toro's well-known affinity for this trope should make it hardly a surprise that fetuses in jars make an appearance. They're part of Clem's show. One — a cyclops-like thing he's named Enoch — appears throughout the movie as a motif, and dominates the end credits.
  • Phony Psychic: Played straight with Pete and Stan, and Zig-Zagged with Zeena who engages in fake mind-reading, but also has a seemingly genuine ability to tell the future using her Tarot cards.
  • Production Throwback: There's a small one to del Toro's previous film Crimson Peak: the safe in Lilith's office is labeled "Enola", the same name as one of the Allerdale Hall ghosts.
  • Pstandard Psychic Pstance: Pete (and his subsequent apprentice Stan) does this while doing his medium act. He explains to Stan (and the audience) that the "hand-next-to-the-temple" stance is code and the way he moves his fingers during it is a way to communicate with his assistant about what he's supposed to say.
  • Rape as Backstory: Molly states that she's never gone all the way with a man... voluntarily, that is.
  • Riches to Rags: Stan goes from a wealthy and successful entertainer who wears nice suits, lives in a fancy hotel and has all he could want to a homeless alcoholic who is so broken down he resorts to taking on the role of the geek at a carnival.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Enoch is said to have killed his mother in childbirth. This parallels Stan's deliberate murder of his own father.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Lilith has no real interest in the money Stanton is able to get out of Grindle. Her real goal seems to be to ruin Stanton for embarrassing her at their first meeting.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: When Stan pulls a spook show on Enza Grindle, Grindle pays him increasingly exorbitant amount of money to get closer to his deceased girlfriend. When Stan warns Grindle that he can't buy hope, Grindle says that he believes he actually can.
    Grindle: Well... not to be crude... but I know I can.
  • Sherlock Scan: Used by the mentalists in the story and Lilith. It's used as a component in Stan's act (where he deduces that Lilith's purse contains a pistol because the way she holds the purse shows that it's heavy, which alongside some knowledge of the psychology of women like her allows him to correctly guess even the gun's appearance), and as part of how Lilith observes and manipulates her patients (such as when she concludes that Stan has a special aversion to alcohol from his overly emphatic rejection of a drink and how he winces subtly when she opened the bottle).
  • Signs of Disrepair: While dropping off the Geek, Clem and Stanton pass by a neon sign saying "JESUS SAVES", except with enough letters out to spell "SAVE US".
  • Silent Protagonist: Subverted. Stan noticeably doesn't say a word for the first several minutes of the film, but it's not too long before he starts talking.
  • Smug Snake: Stan is very clever, and when he's playing to the crowd he's very successful. However, when he starts running spook shows he starts buying into his own press, despite both Molly and Zeena trying to warn him to stop. In spite of the warnings, Stan is convinced he has things under control. At the end, he is a thoroughly broken man, due to his own greed and ambition.
  • The Social Expert: Stan and Dr. Ritter. As a psychologist, Dr. Ritter is vastly superior at it.
  • The Sociopath: Stan actually fits many of the criteria for the clinical definition of a sociopath rather than the typical Hollywood one. He acts very impulsively frequently in ways that ultimately undo him, has a rather self-aggrandizing sense of self to the extent that he starts buying his own press, and he lies frequently as a defense mechanism. Lilith more fits the Hollywood depiction, being a superficially charming woman who is willing to orchestrate the deaths of several people all to ruin a man whose only slight was making her look foolish in public.
  • Stage Money: The cash Stan kept in Ritter's office got replaced with stacks of 1s, with a hundred on top of each. He only figures it out when she rubs it into his face.
  • Those Two Guys: Bruno the strong man and Major Mosquito the dwarf are always together.
  • Title Drop: Whilst discussing how a man gets to be a geek, Clem tells Stan that the men who end up as such can be found in "nightmare alleys", and mentions PTSD-stricken veterans from World War I (who are sometimes addicted to alcohol or narcotics) as an example. The last part of the film finds the fallen Stan in one those "nightmare alleys", a shantytown.
  • Together in Death: Stan inadvertently causes Judge Kimball's wife to perform a Murder-Suicide by convincing her that Kimball's son promised they'd be reunited in the afterlife.
  • Too Clever by Half: Stan is undeniably a very skilled and intelligent con artist but he badly overestimates his own skill and believes that his abilities make him immune to the same kind of weaknesses he exploits in others and someone who could never be conned himself. He pays dearly for these flaws at the end.
  • The Tower: When Stanton does a tarot reading for himself (using Zeena's deck), the tower is the very first card he sees, signifying his looming downfall.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Stan notes that Molly likes chocolate, and she's seen munching on them several times throughout the film.
  • Uncertain Doom: Clem says the first Geek is bound to die soon from a infection in his head, but after he's left at the doorstep of some kind of house of mercy we don't see if this actually comes to pass. Of course, given his mental state, hygiene and poverty, his chances are incredibly slim.
  • Unexpectedly Real Magic: Clem's circus is full of phonies and fakery, so Stanton is quite shocked when Zeena (herself a mentalist running a con on the clientele) pointedly warns Tarot-reading is real fortune-telling, not trickery. He still doesn't think much of it (and the film never quite confirms it), but Zeena's tarot reading has a startling accuracy.
  • The Vamp: As in the book and the 1947 adaptation, Lillith Ritter is this. Stan is also effectively a male version, charming and/or seducing every woman he meets into assisting him with his schemes. Ritter out-vamps him by the end.
  • Villain of Another Story: Grindle alludes to "hurting" many young women over the course of his life, but this is not the primary focus of the movie and no details are given.
  • Villainous Friendship: Anderson cares a great deal for Grindle. He's clearly devastated to find Grindle's dead body and dies trying to avenge him.
  • Villain Protagonist: Stan has sparks of decency in him, but he gradually reveals himself to be rotten to his core. He really only remains sympathetic due to the fact that he's bested by an even more cold-blooded villain.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Clem completely disappears from the plot once Stan and Molly leave the carnival. Notably, when Zeena, Bruno and Major Mosquito show up to their hotel, Clem isn’t with them and isn’t mentioned once. In the finale scene, we learn that he had to sell Enoch to another carnival, implying that his fortunes have declined. Molly's fate is also left ambiguous after she abandons Stan.
  • Wham Line: "I do love you, Stan." And then: "Did I oversell it?"
    • Tim Blake Nelson's carnival owner taking pity on Stan and offering him a job that he says will get him food and shelter, which Stan happily accepts, before adding, "Of course, it's only temporary. Just until we get a real geek." In that moment, Stan and the audience know exactly what his fate will end up as and he can do nothing but accept and laugh at the bitter irony before breaking down into tears.
  • Woman Scorned: Inverted. Dr. Ritter's entire motive seems to be payback on Stan over humiliating her during one of his shows. This involves seducing him to achieve her ends.
  • You Are What You Hate: Throughout the film, Stan expresses disdain for the "chumps" he's fooling with his mentalist/spiritualist act, but in the final scene, when the carnival owner first sends him away only to reel him back in with the promise of a "temporary" job as the geek, he seems to realize that he himself is just as much of a chump now, and breaks down laughing and weeping because of it.


Video Example(s):


Stan Carlisle snaps

Stanton "Stan" Carlisle, having been reduced to a disheveled alcoholic after losing everything to Dr. Lilith Ritter, is reduced to broken, mirthless laughter after being forced to accept a carnival owner's offer to work as a geek.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / LaughingMad

Media sources: