Nightmare Alley Ending Explained & Film Analysis

Why Nightmare Alley couldn’t have had a different ending: an analysis of Guillermo del Toro’s new film. Nightmare Alley is a very unusual film from the famous storyteller Guillermo del Toro. Here is a completely mundane plot, without any fantastic monsters, but this realism breathes with real cold and fear. The director fully revealed the meaning of the film “Nightmare Alley”, and no understatement remains after viewing. However, the characters themselves are very colorful here, so their actions and consequences require a detailed analysis.

Film and book

Guillermo del Toro’s film is based on the book of the same name written by William Lindsay Gresham. The idea came to the author in 1939, when the author fought in Spain. The civil war was over, and Gresham was waiting to be repatriated to his homeland. Here he met Joseph Holliday, in whose company he often took a drink. It was Joseph who told Gresham a creepy story about a traveling circus, where the crown number was biting off the heads of live snakes and chickens for the amusement of the public. Of course, this trick was performed by degraded personalities, ready for anything for a sip of alcohol.

circus and its horrorsFrame from the film.

The story struck Gresham so much that he could not sleep properly for a long time, and calmed down only after he poured out his emotions on paper. Based on this plot, Guillermo del Toro created his own story, so creepy and frightening that after watching it is difficult to sort out your feelings.


Country : USA, Mexico, Canada

Genre : Thriller, Drama, Crime

Year of production : 2021

Directed by : Guillermo del Toro

Cast : Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins

tagline : “Man or beast?”

Let’s start the analysis of the idea of ​​Nightmare Alley with a brief description of the film. This is the story of Stan Carlisle, who, in the first frames, burns the corpse along with the house. Later it turns out that this is his father. The guy is attached to a wandering fair, where a man-beast performs. The audience willingly looks at this monster, only vaguely resembling a man. Of course, no-human beast does not exist. It’s just that the director of this booth is looking for completely drunken drunkards, and offers them temporary work. The unfortunate are kept in a cage on alcohol and opium, and in the end they completely degenerate, and are already ready for anything, just not to lose their place.

Stan joins the traveling artists. He works with Zina, who poses as a clairvoyant. In fact, guessing thoughts and other mentalism is just a clever trick that is built on verbal signs. Stan is a smart guy who wants to master this art. To do this, he begs to be a student to Pete, who came up with this number. At the same time, Stan develops an affair with Molly, one of the artists.

Bradley CooperBradley Cooper played the lead role of Stanton Carlyle. Frame from the film.

Some time later, Pete dies. He is an alcoholic, and when he asks a student to get him a bottle, he accidentally, but rather maliciously slips him methanol. Stan persuades Molly to leave, promising to throw the whole world at her feet. The clever guy has fully mastered the technique of swindling the public and is confident that he can succeed in New York. Remarkably, he succeeds.

Stan quickly becomes a well-known mentalist, performing in expensive clubs. Molly is his assistant. However, there is no more love between young people. Molly senses this and misses the good old days when she performed at the fair. During one of the performances, Lillith Ritter interferes with the show. She is a well-known psychologist who works with influential and wealthy people. The woman is sure that Stan is just fooling people and is going to expose him. However, the swindler very cleverly gets out of the current situation, ridiculing Lillith along the way.

The psychologist invites Stan to his reception, where he agrees to a deal. She leaks information about her clients to the pseudo-mentalist, and he tells her the truth about himself. Now Stan’s performances are moving to a new level. He starts working with VIP clients, allegedly communicates with the souls of deceased relatives and pumps out money. Judge Kimbell and his wife are the first victims of the fraudster. Their son died in the war, and the mother did not want to let her boy go there. Stan convinces the woman that she will definitely meet her son after death.

The fame of the mentalist is spreading throughout New York. The judge introduces Stan to a very powerful man named Ezra Grindle. A man forced his wife to have an abortion and she died. Ezra suffers from this all his life, and is looking for any way to communicate with his deceased wife.

Richard JenkinsRichard Jenkins as Ezra Grindle and Bradley Cooper as Stan. Frame from the film.

Some of the information about Ezra is given to Stan by Lillith, but she refuses to participate in the fraudulent scheme, realizing the consequences if the fraud is discovered. Ezra gives Stan large sums of money, which he keeps in Lillith’s safe. Ezra insists that the mentalist materialize his wife. He agrees, hoping to pass off Molly as a woman. He is going to conduct a materialization ceremony in the evening park. Stan is confident that when the “spirit” appears, he will be able to bring Ezra to his knees and make him pray. At this time, Molly will have time to leave. However, everything does not go according to plan.

Ezra rushes to the “ghost” and realizes he has been tricked. The enraged millionaire hits Molly and Stan beats him to death. He manages to escape, knocking down a guard along the way. Molly leaves, and Stan comes to Ritter’s office for money. However, the psychologist replaces the money with dollar bills. A fight breaks out. Lillith wounds Stan with a pistol, and he tries to strangle her. The mentalist barely manages to escape from the police pursuing him.

Now he is a homeless tramp. Stan comes to a traveling circus and offers the owner a phenomenal number. However, he refuses. As Stan is about to leave, the owner stops him, offers him a drink, and offers to participate in the man-beast act. Stan knows this scheme, but agrees, assuring that a better candidate cannot be found. The final.

Cate BlanchettCate Blanchett as Lillith Ritter. Frame from the film.

Ending explanation

The meaning of the ending of the movie “Nightmare Alley” is quite transparent. Unlike other poor fellows who have to play the role of a man-beast, Stan understands perfectly well what is being offered to him. He saw it all with his own eyes. What is the clue, because the fate of the man-beast is much worse than that of real animals. The actor will have to live in a cage, eat leftovers and act literally for a bottle of cheap alcohol.

However, the explanation for the ending of Nightmare Alley lies in hopelessness. Stan is well aware that he has no choice. His fate on the street will be similar, only continuing to wander, he will have to earn his own food. Performing in the circus, he receives a piece of bread and a sip of whiskey. The end will still be the same – a joyless life and death.

The meaning of the film

Unlike the ending, the essence of the movie “Nightmare Alley” is more variable. Based on the content, the general meaning is that you cannot escape fate. When Molly invited circus performers to her place, Zina read tarot cards to Stan, and he had an unenviable fate. Then the man turned over the card, being sure that fate was in his hands, and he was its master. However, the ending of the story clearly demonstrated that this is far from being the case.

Rooney MaraRooney Mara as Molly, Bradley Cooper as Stan. Frame from the film.

Also, the meaning of the film can be reduced to the fact that the main thing is to stop in time. Stan had a good business, but he wanted more. He decided to play with human destinies, but even he himself did not understand what he had done. For example, having thoughtlessly promised the judge’s wife that she would definitely meet with her son, Stan did not even know what this would lead to.

Why did psychologist Lillith Ritter frame Stan?

For her, this is just a game seasoned with revenge. Stan made fun of her during the performance. Here, the hidden meaning of the story of Lillith and Stan is fully revealed in the interpretation of phrases that the characters drop in passing. During the show, the mentalist tells the woman that she is not as strong as she thinks. In the finale, she shoots him with the words: "Am I strong enough for you now?".
In fact, Lillith ruined Stan's life by deftly luring him with easy money. At the end of Nightmare Alley, she makes him look insane. Even if the case had not gone to the police, Stan would have been a beggar in any case. Lillith wanted to break him, shattering the dream he had pursued all his life.

Why did Stan kill his father?

Because he didn't want to be like him. Based on the meaning of the film, it can be assumed that the father drank, perhaps he beat his son. That is why he never drank alcohol, proudly declaring it. For the first time, Stan compromised his principles under the influence of Lillith. Therefore, the murder of the father and the burning of the body is the destruction of the bridges connecting the hero with a past life.

Why is the movie called Nightmare Alley?

Here, each viewer can find their own meaning, but the simplest explanation can be as follows. An alley is a straight road that can symbolize the path of life. Regardless of the purpose for which we go along this road, it always has one beginning and end. In the case of Stan, he began his journey after the murder of his father, hoping to achieve financial well-being, and not shunning any methods for this. However, at the end of this path, a nightmare awaited him - the role of a man-beast.

The woman was eager to see her boy, so she first shot her husband and then committed suicide. Therefore, the explanation of the film can be as follows: Stan’s fate is retribution for his sins. He did not reckon with people, playing them the way it was convenient, and as a result he was thrown to the sidelines of life.

Similar films

  • West Side Story (USA, 2021). This is a modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, transferred to Manhattan, where there is a confrontation between criminal gangs.
  • “Regions of darkness” (USA, 2011). A writer in writer’s block tries brain-stimulating pills, unaware that he is stepping into the abyss.
  • “Crimson Peak” (USA, 2015). Edith Cushing has to solve the mystery of the mysterious estate.
  • “Project Adam” (USA. 2022). What happens if you meet yourself from the future? This is exactly what 12-year-old Adam is about to find out.
  • “Gone Girl” (USA, 2014). The wife disappears on the eve of the wedding, everything points to her murder by her husband. And only the spouse knows that this is a very tricky game.
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