It begins with a dead body. A match is lit. A house is set on fire. Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) walks away, his past behind him, burning down. The dead body was his father. That pathetic alcoholic. Even in death he reeks of alcohol. But that chapter of Stan’s life is over now. He’s turning it all to ash and he’s going to start over someplace new. The war happening in Europe isn’t even an option. That’s for saps and heroes, and he’s neither of those.
Stan catches a bus. He sleeps. He wakes at the end of the line. He follows a little man towards a big top canopy and lights. There’s an air of both excitement and dread at the carnival. He’s seduced by a carny’s voice and lead into a tent where he’s promised a glimpse of a disfigured man-beast. Is he man or is he beast? Watch as the half-man/half-beast feeds on a live chicken. The audience cringes at the sight of the Geek gnawing on chicken blood and guts. It’s a gruesome sight, yet these people pay to see it. But that’s not what terrifies Stan. The horror is not the act of seeing a man devour a chicken, it’s the man himself. Stan sees past the act. He sees what used to be a man, now de-evolved into a base human being. What causes a man to spiral downward into such a lowly state of being? Stan knows the answer. It’s only a matter of time before he becomes that man.
Stan lives on the border of sanity, trying to distance himself from that razor-thin line. He’s in search of someplace miles away from his father. He’s haunted by both his father and the Geek. It doesn’t matter what road Stan travels, any path is a mere detour from what is ultimately inevitable. Stan’s nightmare is not the inhumanity at the carnival, in fact the carnival is where Stan lives his best days. His nightmare is failure, and all roads lead to failure. To be a failure means that Stan is like his father. His father was consumed by alcohol. To drink alcohol means Stan’s desperate. Desperation leads to a lack of humanity. Loss of humanity is the Geek. Stan tells himself that he’s no geek.
Stan falls in love with Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), a performer at the carnival. They escape the carnival together. He and the woman have got plans. Big plans that are going to change their life. They’re going to con their way to the top with a mentalist act. One that he learned from an alcoholic ex-carny. But Stan’s ambitions take him too far, almost over that slippery edge. He believes he is someone that he is not. He tells people he knows that his mentalist act is a grift, but he cannot see the line that he so easily crosses back and forth, where the con becomes reality. He’s got some rich and powerful people fooled and he’s playing a dangerous game. But the reward is worth the risk. If he can pull off this one big supernatural con then Stan will be a rich man. He’ll be a success, worlds away from becoming his father.
But there’s another woman. A psychologist woman, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). And she’s more dangerous than any of the marks that Stan is grifting. She’s ambitious too. Stan claims to know her, but he’s got her number all wrong. She’s not motivated by money. She wants power. Power over men. Power over Stan. She plays an elegant and sexy game all the way to the end. She’s got Stan fooled. She’s even got him drinking again. But she slips. She says three-little-words that would never escape her lips, “I love you”. She’s the kinda woman that could never love a man. The game is over. She shoots Stan. Stan runs, police sirens chasing after him. The city closes in on him like a concrete nightmare. He hops a train. He escapes, but his world is shattered.
Months later Stan wakes in a shanty town. He’s got a hole in his shoe and an alcoholic habit. He’s got nothing left to bargain, nothing left to barter. He goes to the carnival outside of town. He meets with the boss carny. He’s looking for a job. The boss says he’s got something for Stan, but it’s just a temporary job, until they find themselves a real geek. The boss asks if Stan can handle the job. Stan laughs and says that he was born for it. It’s the end of the line for Stan. In a few weeks he won’t even be Stan. He’ll become the Geek. Too bad Stan. Hope you enjoyed life’s little detour, but it’s time to face the music.
Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a Noir enthusiast’s paradise. I can write a mile long list of the Noir elements in the film. But that’s not what impressed me most. What impressed me most was the circular story. How everything that was hinted at in the beginning of the film came to fruition by the end. Like it was all destined to happen to poor Stanton Carlisle, yet it didn’t feel forced. Del Toro is too experienced to force action upon his audience. He knows the tricks of his trade. He’s a bit of a con-man himself. He knows how to sprinkle those subtle story nuances throughout his film and allow them to payoff at the end.
While watching the film I couldn’t help recognize the similarities to Edgar G. Ulmar’s Detour (1945). There wasn’t anything in particular that caused me to make the correlation. Del Toro knows how to hide his homages too, after all. It wasn’t until the end, when Blanchett’s Dr. Ritter is strangled by a telephone cord in a similar manner to Ann Savage’s wily and deceptive Vera in Detour that the missing puzzle piece snapped into place. Then I thought about the entire story, from beginning to end. The whole rise and fall, from riches to poverty, was but a brief detour for Stanton Carlisle. We witnessed a man being railroaded towards a predetermined fate. Stan was doomed to become the Geek, just as Al Roberts (Tom Neal) was doomed to lose his love and get arrested for murder in Detour. Such is the luckless life of an anti-hero in the world of Noir.