The Pitch: When we first meet Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), he’s burying a body under the floorboards of a country home and setting it aflame, burning his past and his previous life to the ground, presumably to start anew. Eventually, his wanderings lead him to a run-down carnival deep in the sticks, where he quickly ingratiates himself with the freaks and geeks who populate it.
It’s not long before he sees the flim-flams underpinning each of their acts — particularly the mentalism of fortune teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her drunken husband, Pete (David Strathairn), who correctly divines the identity of objects with the help of verbal codes — and wants in on the action. Stars in his eyes, Stan makes his way to the big city with young, virginal carny Molly (Rooney Mara) in tow, taking the “spook show” to ritzy big-city clubs.
It’s there that Stan happens across Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), an unscrupulous analyst to the city’s upper crust who records her sessions and has an eye on Stan’s unique talents. Seeing a kind of kinship in their shared manipulation of people — he with clairvoyance, she with psychotherapy — the two strike a dangerous bargain, one that may just lead Stan to ruin.
I Have the (Tyrone) Power: While Guillermo del Toro is chiefly known for his glossy tales of the supernatural (from Pan’s Labyrinth to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water in 2017), Nightmare Alley’s monsters are decidedly human. (Granted, they often are in his other works, but here there are no fishmen or mystical fauns to run interference; it’s all man’s inhumanity to man.)