Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of the 2021 adaptation of Nightmare Alley. Spoilers ahead.
I walked out of Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of Nightmare Alley with a slight tingling feeling. You know, the one that comes after seeing a movie that so envelopes your mind that your body has a hard time coming out of its world. The film, which features a script co-written by del Toro and Kim Morgan, and masterful cinematography by Dan Laustsen, is one of del Toro’s best.
Some say the film is a bit too long; it clocks in at 150 minutes, 40 longer than Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. But I disagree. The film never drags, and I felt a sadness as del Toro slowly brings us to the end of the tale. I wanted more time with the characters, and in particular, the dark, complicated lead, Stanton Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper. As FSR’s own Rob Hunter wrote in his review of the film, the supporting cast delivers a set of strong performances, but they are “ultimately all window dressing in support of Cooper and his character’s descent.”
Cooper’s descent crescendos in the film’s final shot. With the gift of hindsight, the film’s ending is not that surprising. del Toro clearly foreshadows what is to come for Carlisle. But the moments leading up to the final scene are so shocking, violent, and devastating, I felt too disoriented to fully process what plays out on the screen.
This essay will take a look at the film’s final moment. What do we make of the final shot of Carlisle laughing? And perhaps more importantly, what does Carlisle himself make of it?
The Geek Show
Before we return to the film’s final moments, let us first quickly recap what we know about Carlisle. The film begins with Carlisle lowering a body beneath the floor of a small home and then lighting the building on fire in Mrs. Danvers-like fashion. He then takes a job as a laborer with a traveling carnival. His new boss, Clem (Willem Dafoe), takes an immediate liking to him. One of Clem’s main attractions is a geek show, a carnival act in which a man chases a live chicken around a ring and then ends the show by biting off its head.
The geek, played in the film by Paul Anderson, clearly suffers from some sort of mental illness. Clem bills him to audiences as “half-man, half-beast.” One day, the geek falls deathly ill, and Carlisle helps Clem bring the geek to a church clinic, where, having served his use, Clem coldly leaves him in the rain.
Clem and Carlisle then grab food at a diner, where Carlisle, visibly disturbed, asks Clem just how a man becomes a geek. Carlisle explains how he targets men, often drug addicts and alcoholics with past trauma, and drives them into insanity. He does this by offering them a temporary job and slowly giving them alcohol laced with opium. Within weeks of drinking the alcohol and a mix of physical and mental abuse, Clem has a geek.
Carlisle’s horror is palpable. But it’s in this moment that he learns one of the many dark truths of the business he has entered: for some, anything goes.
Depravity of His Own
As the film comes to a close, del Toro returns to the house Carlisle set ablaze. Carlisle’s father lays dying on a bed. With contempt on his face, Carlisle opens the window to let in the winter air and rips his father’s blanket from his body. He sits in a chair, tells his father he always hated him and watches him die.
del Toro smartly waits until the film’s end to show us this blatant act of evil. It explains so much: Carlisle’s initial resistance to alcohol, his eagerness to start over with a group of people who, as Clem says, don’t ask questions about one’s past. And it’s why he’s constantly on the lookout for father figures, like Clem and a medium named Pete (David Strathairn).
Pete, an alcoholic himself, and his wife, a medium named Zeena (Toni Collette) perform an act together. They take a liking to Carlisle and agree to teach him their craft. They use cold reading and a coded language system to convince the clientele of their clairvoyant powers. But they warn Carlisle to never use such tricks to actually convince people that they have talked with deceased loved ones. Never, they say, put on a “spook show.” Naturally, it is advice Carlisle does not follow.
One night, Carlisle accidentally gives Pete a bottle of wood alcohol instead of a bottle of Clem’s moonshine. Pete dies. Earlier in the film, Clem had warned Carlisle not to confuse the two. Carlisle seems distraught and remorseful, and I felt that in the moment. We know Carlisle does not drink and has his own history with alcoholism in his family. Pete’s death feels personal and triggering. But knowing what we learn at the film’s end, I wonder: was this intentional, at least on some subconscious level?
Just before Pete’s death, Carlisle tried to steal a book of Pete’s, a field guide of sorts, full of secrets of the craft. Pete caught Carlisle and chastised his ambition. Perhaps this triggered Carlisle. An alcoholic, angry father figure stood in Carlisle’s way, again. And he acted.
With Pete’s book in hand, Carlisle sets off for Chicago to start a new act with the woman he loves, another carnie named Molly (Rooney Mara). Killing has paid off again.
Rise and Fall
After Pete’s death, the film fast-forwards two years. By this time, Carlisle, with help from Molly, has become one of the most popular and profitable acts in Chicago. One day, a psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), attends their show. She introduces Carlisle to her rich clients and they begin scamming their wealthy clientele into thinking that they can talk with the deceased.
Eventually, a wealthy man named Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) hires Carlisle. Grindle wants Carlisle to help him communicate with a deceased lover, a woman named Dory, who died after Grindle forced her to have a miscarriage.
After months and months of sessions, Grindle grows impatient and Carlisle becomes increasingly stressed. Carlisle begins to drink and starts up an affair with Ritter. He becomes so desperate, he puts on a spook show that goes horribly wrong. It ends with him killing Grindle and Grindle’s body man. This occurs on the same night that another wealthy couple, who Carlisle had put on a spook show for, commit a murder-suicide.
Now responsible for the deaths of four more people, Carlisle flees Chicago as a stowaway and returns to life on the road. He continues to drink and drink. One day, he stumbles upon a traveling carnival. Perhaps he can start over again.
Disheveled and reeking of alcohol, he goes into the owner’s office to ask for a job. The man says no, adding that he doesn’t need another drunk. But then, just as Carlisle turns to leave, the carnival boss sees another opportunity.
The Last Laugh
Carlisle sits down in front of the carnival boss’ desk. From one carnie to another, the boss says, he’s going to do Carlisle a favor. The boss reaches behind his desk and fixes Carlisle a quick drink. He says he’s got a small job for Carlisle. It doesn’t pay much and it’s temporary, but if he wants it, it’s his.
As the boss talks, we soon realize: it’s the same monologue Clem told Carlisle he used to lure in potential geeks. Carlisle now fits the exact profile of the kind of man Clem would target. And the drink from which Carlisle now sips is most likely laced with some kind of opium.
Carlisle, with a crazed look in his eye, agrees to take the job. “Mister, I was born for it,” he says. Just before he accepts, del Toro moves the camera in on Carlisle’s face. There’s a brief pause. We’re left to wonder: what is Carlisle thinking?
The most obvious answer may be that Carlisle is simply too down-trodden and broken to see what is obviously playing out in front of him. But I think there’s another possibility.
When del Toro brings the camera to Carlisle’s face, we see him thinking, processing. And thus in that final moment, we see Carlisle knowingly embrace his fate, his condemnation for the choices that he made.
After he joined the carnival for the first time, Carlisle had a choice between two father figures: Pete and Clem. The former told him to be fair and cautious. The latter did whatever it took to put on a good show. Carlisle chose Pete’s act, but Clem’s approach. And now he must pay the price. What goes around comes around.
It’s the inclusion of the word “born” that makes Carlisle’s last line so devastating. It’s a change del Toro and Morgan made from the original adaptation, where Carlisle says he was “made” for the role.
“That one word makes a big difference there because we wanted the audience to know very clearly from the beginning that he was going to end up being the geek,” Del Toro said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We didn’t want that to be a surprise … what we wanted is not the what, but the how.”
With one word, we are reminded of Carlisle’s horrible past. The trauma he had to endure. And while his past does not excuse his actions, his final words remind us that we are all victims of circumstance. We don’t all start off on equal footing. Life is often unfair in ways we can’t control. And thus we are left with a sliver of empathy and understanding. Perhaps that is what Carlisle wants. By accepting his fate, he takes ownership of his actions and has one last chance at redemption and forgiveness.
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