NIGHTMARE ALLEY*CUT TO THE CHASE*
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Jeremy
The film opens with Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) dragging a body into the floorboards of his home, and then dropping a match to set the entire place on fire. He then takes a bus until it drops him off at a carnival. He watches as the troupe leader, Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), presents a “geek” (Paul Anderson) to the audience. The man is advertised as “is it a man or a beast?” before an amused crowd. Clem drops a live chicken down as the Geek comes out and bites the head off the chicken, to the horror and amusement of the crowd.
Stan is spotted by other carnies, strongest man Bruno (Ron Perlman) and world’s smallest man Major Mosquito (Mark Povinelli), who think he is up to no good, but Stan ends up getting a job as a carny working with them. After proving himself to be useful, Clem allows Stan to join them as they make their move to another carnival.
On their next job, Stan starts to grow close to one of the carnies, Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), whose act is to allow electrical charges to run through her body. Bruno warns Stan not to hurt her since he promised her father that he would look after her, and he threatens Stan with violence if he does anything to her. At one point, the “Beast” Geek flees from his cage, and Stan and Clem have to look for him. The Geek hits Stan over the head with a rock, and Stan retaliates by throwing him down and hitting him over the head, but Clem stops him from killing the man.
Stan stays with fellow carny Zeena (Toni Collette), whose act is being a clairvoyant to the patrons, along with her husband Pete (David Straithairn). Stan has a brief affair with Zeena. He later helps them with their act, which sees Zeena pretending to be a medium between herself and the customers. Pete misses a cue because he is drunk, so Zeena has to improvise, but she gets the audience to cheer for her. Meanwhile, Stan tries to come up with a gimmick for Molly where she is strapped to an electric chair and would allow him to join her act.
Stan spends time with Clem, who shows him the stash of liquor that he has, but warns him against taking the wood alcohol, which is poisonous. After taking the Geek to get medical attention, Clem tells Stan about how a man becomes a Geek after being broken and left with nothing to his name. He also shows Stan a collection of oddities he possesses, such as a fetus with a third eye that killed its mother in childbirth.
Stan learns some tricks from Zeena and Pete, after Pete demonstrates his techniques on Stan by mentioning him wanting the love of his father. Although Pete says this is just a run-of-the-mill trick, it does hit Stan since he did have a tumultuous relationship with his father. Zeena and Pete warn Stan against putting on a “spook show” involving trying to channel the dead in their acts.
At night, Stan brings Pete some liquor per his requests. While Pete appears passed out, Stan attempts to swipe his little black book of tricks, but Pete catches him. In the morning, Bruno and Major go to Zeena and tell her something happened to Pete. Everybody runs to the middle of the field and finds Pete dead, having been poisoned (although it’s not clear if Stan gave him the wood alcohol on purpose or by mistake). Zeena wails over his body.
As Stan grows closer to Molly, he eventually convinces her to leave the carnival behind and run away with him. When they start kissing, Bruno catches them and he starts punching Stan, but Molly holds him off and says she loves him and has agreed to go with him. On their last day, Stan says his farewell to Zeena. He offers her Pete’s book, but she declines to take it.
Two years later, Stan and Molly have put on an act in New York with him as “The Great Stanton.” He wears a blindfold and guesses what Molly is holding based on certain signals. During one show, they are approached by psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She opts to do the act with Stan herself, asking him to guess what is in her clutch. Stan correctly guesses that she is holding a pistol in there. The crowd applauds. Afterwards, Stan speaks to Judge Charles Kimball (Peter MacNeill), who employed Lilith to see if Stan was the real deal, and Stan claims to be channeling Kimball’s deceased son Julian. He offers to pay Stan handsomely for a private reading, which Molly says they don’t do, but Stan cannot turn down the opportunity.
Stan goes to Kimball’s house to meet with him and his wife (Mary Steenburgen). He learns that Julian died in No Man’s Land, and claims to feel his presence, which is enough to convince them of Stan’s “abilities.”
Stan later meets with Lilith in her office. She knows he is a con man, but she is intrigued by his methods and plans to help him exploit New York’s elite, since she has several sessions with them recorded. She also begins sessions with Stan, learning of his guilt in Pete’s death since he implicitly viewed him as something of a surrogate father figure. It is also shown that Stan was with his father in his final moments, as he made his father freeze to death and later dumped his body in the house before setting it on fire.
Molly calls Bruno, and he arrives to visit her with Major and Zeena. Stan talks with Zeena, who also advises him against doing the spook show.
Per Lilith’s suggestions, Stan meets with Kimball and is introduced to Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a wealthy man who wants to speak to his late wife Dory, who died after suffering a miscarriage. Stan meets Grindle and his loyal assistant Anderson (Holt McCallany), and he is hooked up to a lie detector. When asked about being a medium, Stan is almost exposed as a liar until he manages to make claims related to Dory, which convinces Grindle that he is who he says he is.
Stan begins an affair with Lilith and starts drinking while continuing to scam Grindle. Molly learns of the affair and packs her bags to leave Stan, but he catches up to her at the train station and convinces her to stay.
At the Kimball house, Mrs. Kimball has lost her mind and believes that, based on what Stan told her, that she will be reunited with Julian. She shoots her husband in the head before turning the gun on herself.
Grindle wishes to see Dory again, so Stan plans with Molly to fake a seance since Molly slightly resembles Dory, based off a sketch he saw. Stan meets Grindle in the cemetery, where he admits to Stan that he abused women in his lifetime, and he feels responsible for what happened to Dory. Molly puts on her outfit and throws fake blood on herself. However, when Grindle gets too close and starts grabbing her, Molly backs out. Grindle becomes angered and strikes Molly before threatening Stan. Stan responds by punching Grindle to death, hitting him hard enough to break his nose clean off. Anderson comes out in response, but Stan and Molly begin driving away, and Stan runs Anderson over twice, killing him. When they get away, Molly leaves Stan for good.
Stan returns to Lilith’s office, where she reveals that she was scamming him and taking all the money he was collecting from Grindle. She shoots Stan in the ear, and when he attacks her, she gets the police to come. Stan flees before he is caught and runs to a train.
A few years pass. Stan is now homeless, broke, and a full-blown alcoholic. He ends up at another carnival, where he speaks to the boss (Tim Blake Nelson). He tries to offer himself to do the clairvoyant act, but the boss turns him away. He does offer Stan a drink and a job at being the new geek. Stan says he was born for it, and he begins to laugh through his sobs.
Stan Carlisle is a con man who gets a job working at a carnival for a man named Clem. He bonds with another carny, Molly Cahill, and learns how to perform a clairvoyant act from Madame Zeena and her husband Pete. Stan later convinces Molly to leave with him after she falls in love with him.
Two years later, Stan and Molly have set up an act in New York, with Molly using coded tricks to help Stan guess the items from the audience that she is holding. They are nearly exposed by psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter, but after Stan turns the tables on her, she and Stan form an alliance/affair where they will exploit New York's elite, beginning with Judge Charles Kimball, and later wealthy widower Ezra Grindle, who wants to see his wife who died during an abortion.
Stan's lies cause Kimball's wife to kill him and herself after believing that Stan spoke to their late son. Grindle asks Stan to conduct a seance to see his late wife, with help from Molly, but after their ruse is exposed, Stan kills Grindle and his assistant Anderson before Molly leaves him for good. Stan later finds out that Lilith was tricking him too, stealing the money he collected from Kimball and Grindle, and then forcing him to go on the run.
Stan ends up a broke and homeless alcoholic, where he ends up at another carnival and takes a job as one of the side attractions, a "geek", now that he is broken and desperate.