Nightmare Alley is a 2021 dark noir with a touch of thriller and drama directed by Guillermo del Tor.
The plot of the film is based on the novel by William Linzi Gresham. The gloomy setting of the pre-war time in the film is shown from the position of a moral crisis – the inherent drunkenness, the search for thrills and any part-time jobs lead people to the most dangerous and evil places. The protagonist of the story – Stanton Carlisle – burns the house along with a mysterious corpse, starting on the run. He finds himself in a traveling fair, does what he can and receives shelter and food for it, agreeing to help the leader – Clem – calm down and catch one of the “nails of the program” – the “man-beast”.
So Stanton gets a permanent job and begins to comprehend the skill of deception, reaching extraordinary heights in this. He sees the fair from the inside: he learns how to create a “man-beast” (the leader reveals this secret to him, telling how he finds the future beast, a homeless drunkard, hooks him on drugs and alcohol, and he completely loses himself, becoming an obedient little animal), how to read and to deceive people by telling them their future or telling them about their innermost and secret anxieties.
He succeeds, saves the fairgrounds from arrest by using his skills off stage for the first time, falls in love with one of his colleagues – Molly – and comes up with her dangerous but spectacular act. He commits an accidental murder, mistakenly giving one of the clairvoyants, from whom he learned the skill, a bottle of methanol, and takes his diary, which reveals the secrets of the “clairvoyance” mastery.
After leaving the fair, Stanton and Molly become a rather successful pair of mentalist tricksters. World War II is in full swing, and they are successfully stuffing their pockets with money, working according to a well-established scheme: Molly, using code phrases, tells Stanton what items are in her hands. At one of the speeches, Lilith Ritter, a psychotherapist, interrupts his speech, but Stanton successfully proves his abilities to her and publicly humiliates her, along the way agreeing to hold a session of communication with the dead for the judge. The case is risky, and Molly persuades him to quit it and not build a real clairvoyant, but Stanton is passionate about money and does not heed her words.
Once in Lilith’s office, he agrees to an adventure, gives her the opportunity to get into his head, conduct a psychoanalysis session in exchange for information that can help him fool clients. He is playing a dangerous game. Steals Lilith’s notes while studying his new victim and learns that his new client is responsible for his wife’s death. During the polygraph test, he puts on a whole show and sticks to his role to the end, even persuading Molly to play the role for a good sum.
But an incident happens – you have to kill both the customer and his bodyguard, and all this – in front of Molly, who had previously tried to escape from Stanton, suspecting him of treason. She leaves him in horror, and the criminal hurries to Lilith to take some of his money and leave the city. An unpleasant surprise awaits him – the psychotherapist beat him and deceived him, seeking to avenge public humiliation, and there is too much evidence of his insanity for the subsequent unpleasant trip to prison. Stanton is forced to save his life (Lilith shoots him and calls security), go on the run and live with homeless alcoholics.
Out of desperation, he tries to get a job at a traveling fair. The new owner offers him a job, and Stanton realizes what the job is because he heard the scheme from Clem. Laughing and crying, he agrees to become a “man-beast”.
It is obvious that the film raises the problem of not only a moral choice, but also the cruelty that a person is able to go to in order to get money. The world in which the hero lives is not perfect, of course, and each person seeks to find “bread and circuses” in order to make sure that he has not lost his humanity. They are ready to pay for it, and circus freaks, masters of deceit of all stripes and drunken homeless people are ready to give them what they want.
The protagonist has always been cruel, although he showed quite human qualities. It came from his childhood, along with his drinking parents, whom he spoke to Lilith during the session, with his poverty, thirst for fame and a better life. He is ready to do anything for money – deceit, false hopes, murder. For him, the phrase “the end justifies the means” is an indestructible dogma, the truth that he adheres to during each of his speeches.
His clients are ready to be deceived, and he is ready to deceive them further, even if he realizes that it may cost their lives. Stanton was a born and talented deceiver and a subtle, observant psychologist, but there was a man more cunning, and he, without realizing it, found himself in a hopeless situation, deciding to play to the end for the sake of the last benefit. And failed miserably.
Fate plays a cruel joke with him, looping the plot of the film in the most demonstrative and literary way – making him the same monster for the surprised worldly gaze, greedily biting his teeth into the neck of a chicken for a drop of hot blood and crying through the veil of opium in tears “I’m not like that!” .