Nightmare Alley is a 2021 American psychological thriller film. It is directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by del Toro and Kim Morgan. The film is based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, and is the second adaptation of the novel after the 1947 film.
The film is released by Searchlight Pictures on December 17, 2021. Additionally, a black-and-white version, subtitled Vision in Darkness and Light, was released on January 14, 2022, in select theaters in Los Angeles, and it was expanded on January 21 in select theaters across the United States.
An ambitious carny (Cooper) with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist (Blanchett) who is even more dangerous than he is.
Stanton "Stan" Carlisle burns down his Midwestern home and takes a job as a carny. When the traveling carnival's geek becomes ill, owner Clem enlists Stan to help him dispose of the man. Stan is disturbed at how any man could sink to the level of performing as a freak, living in a cage in squalor and biting off the heads of live chickens to appease the crowd. Clem explains that he seeks out alcoholics or drug addicts, who are often men with troubled pasts, and lures them in with promises of a temporary job and opium-laced alcohol. He uses their dependence to physically and mentally abuse them until they sink into madness and depravity, thus creating a geek for his carnival. Clem then shows Stan where he stores the moonshine he brews to control the carnies, warning him not to mistake it for the wood alcohol he stores nearby.
Stan works with clairvoyant act "Madame Zeena" and her alcoholic husband, Pete. Zeena and Pete use cold reading and an ingenious coded language system to make it seem that she has extraordinary mental powers, which Pete begins teaching to Stan. He and Zeena warn Stan not to use these skills to continue leading patrons on when it comes to the dead, what they call a "spook show"; they always inform customers afterward that the show is a deception; otherwise, people get hurt. Meanwhile, Stan becomes attracted to fellow performer Molly and approaches her with an idea for a two-person act away from the carnival.
One night, Stan, possibly accidentally, gives Pete the wrong bottle and the old man dies from consuming wood alcohol. In the aftermath, Stan swears his love to Molly and reiterates his plan to her. She accepts and they leave the carnival behind. Two years later, Stan has successfully reinvented himself as "The Great Stanton", a psychic act for the wealthy urban elite of New York, along with Molly as his assistant, using Zeena and Pete's techniques. During a performance, their act is interrupted by psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter, who attempts to expose their code system. Stan's cold reading allows him to best Ritter, keeping their act safe while publicly humiliating her. He is later approached by the wealthy Judge Kimball, who employed Ritter to test Stan. He is now convinced of Stan's abilities and offers to pay him handsomely to allow him and his wife to communicate with their dead son. Despite Molly's objections to the "spook show," Stan agrees.
Ritter invites Stan to her office. Knowing he is a con man, she is nevertheless intrigued by his manipulative skill. Through her recorded sessions with her clients, she has accumulated sensitive information about various members of New York's social elite. Finding themselves to be kindred spirits, she and Stan begin an affair and they conspire together to manipulate Kimball, with Ritter secretly providing private information to fuel his charade. She also begins therapy sessions with Stan, who reveals his guilt over Pete's death and his hatred of his alcoholic father, who he killed in their home before joining the carnival.
Kimball introduces Stan to the powerful and sinister Ezra Grindle, whose lover, Dory, died of a forced abortion. Despite warnings from Ritter that Grindle is dangerous, Stan begins to scam Grindle and as well as starting to drink. Ritter feeds information to Stan to use against Grindle as revenge for him previously attacking her. She shows Stan a scar down her chest and abdomen that she received from Grindle. Molly becomes increasingly uncomfortable, and upon learning of the affair with Ritter, leaves Stan. He begs her to stay, but she refuses, only agreeing to help him one last time. She poses as Dory for Stan's ultimate act: conjuring Dory from afar for Grindle. However, he loses control of Grindle, who reveals himself to be a violent abuser of many women due to his guilt for Dory, then embracing Molly before she can exit. Upon realizing that "Dory" is a fake, he becomes enraged and promises to destroy Stan. Stan beats Grindle to death, then kills his henchman, Anderson, during their escape, before Molly leaves Stan for good. Stan goes to Ritter for help but discovers she has been scamming him all along, revealing that she wanted revenge for what happened during their first encounter. She expresses disappointment in realizing that he was nothing more than a base money-driven criminal. Ritter contacts the police and threatens to use her recordings of their sessions as evidence that he is mentally disturbed should he try to implicate her. Ritter shoots Stan in the ear and he tries to strangle Ritter, but the police arrive and he flees.
Wanted, injured, and with nowhere else to go, Stan hides in a train and wanders around for years as a hobo, sunk into alcoholism. At his limit, he tries to get a job as a mentalist at another carnival. The owner turns him away but offers him a drink and a temporary job as the new geek at the last minute. Stan accepts, saying, "I was born for it," while both laughing and sobbing.
- Bradley Cooper as Stanton "Stan" Carlisle
- Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter
- Toni Collette as Zeena Krumbein
- Willem Dafoe as Clem Hoately
- Richard Jenkins as Ezra Grindle
- Rooney Mara as Molly Cahill
- Ron Perlman as Bruno
- David Strathairn as Pete Krumbein
- Holt McCallany as Anderson
- Tim Blake Nelson as Carny Boss
- Mary Steenburgen as Miss Harrington
- Clifton Collins Jr.
- Jim Beaver as Sheriff Jedediah Judd
- Mark Povinelli as The Major
- Romina Power
- Paul Anderson
- David Hewlett as Dr. Elrood
Principal photography began in January 2020. In March of the same year, Disney halted production on the film due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Production resumed in September 2020. By November 2020, filming had already finished and reshoots occurred. Production officially wrapped on December 12, 2020.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 85% of 104 reviews are positive, with an average rating of 7.40/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "While it may not hit quite as hard as the original, Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley is a modern noir thriller with a pleasantly pulpy spin." Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned a score of 70 out of 100 based on 28 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
- Pedersen, Erik (17 December 2021). "‘Nightmare Alley’ Black-And-White Release Will Ratchet Up The Noir". Deadline Hollywood.
- Fleming Jr, Mike (17 January 2022). "‘Nightmare Alley’s Bradley Cooper, Guillermo Del Toro & J Miles Dale On Leaning Into Black-And-White Version That Is Packing Specialty Houses & Broadening Its Run". Deadline Hollywood.
- Sharf, Zack (2020-01-30). "Guillermo del Toro Begins Filming ‘Nightmare Alley’ With Key ‘Shape of Water’ Collaborators" (en). IndieWire.
- Disney Pausing Production On Features ‘Little Mermaid’, ‘Home Alone’, ‘Nightmare Alley’ & More Until Coronavirus Calms Down - Deadline
- Malkin, Marc (October 7, 2021). "Guillermo del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley' Finds New Composer After Alexandre Desplat Exits (EXCLUSIVE)", Variety.
- D'Alessandro, Anthony (January 21, 2021). "Searchlight Dates Sundance Acquisition ‘The Night House’, ‘Nightmare Alley’ & More For Later This Year". Deadline Hollywood.
- Searchlight Pictures (September 10, 2021). "Nightmare Alley. A Guillermo del Toro Film. In Theaters Everywhere. December 17. @RealGDT". Twitter.