Nightmare Alley Ending Explained: Breaking Down The Fate Of Bradley Cooper’s Noir Huckster

Bradley Cooper sweating and worried in a dark room in Nightmare Alley.
(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

Warning: spoilers for Nightmare Alley are in play. This dark tale is about to get spoiled something fierce, so you may want to head to another piece of coverage pertaining to the film, courtesy of CinemaBlend. 

There are no literal monsters or supernatural forces at work in Guillermo del Toro’s noir thriller Nightmare Alley. In fact, the beasts at work are purely human, with various motivations at work throughout the entirety of this retelling of author William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. By time the Nightmare Alley ending kicks in, the fate of Bradley Cooper’s noir huckster feels like it had been locked in since frame one; and even Stanton Carlisle himself would agree. 

Heed this last warning, dear reader! We’re about to swim into the dark but beautiful waters of this twisted tale, and it’s going to take us everywhere that Stanton set foot. Which means, there are a lot of details that the uninitiated may want to discover by watching the film for themselves. If you don’t want to ruin the fun, head back into the light and enjoy our spoiler-free material on the movie. Those ready to take a trip into Nightmare Alley only need to follow us further, but be warned. You might not like what you see, and it’s very easy to get lost between what’s real, and what’s merely a spook show.

Cate Blanchett with a sly look on her face in Nightmare Alley.

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

What Happened At The End Of Nightmare Alley?

Trying to escape his own dark past, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) goes from a drifter working at a passing carnival to the toast of New York. His mentalist act, alongside girlfriend/assistant Molly (Rooney Mara,) earns him much praise, but ultimately brings him to the edge of death and imprisonment. If only he’d heeded the warnings of those that taught him, he could have saved some lives throughout Nightmare Alley’s third act. 

Pushing his act to its breaking point, thanks to some encouragement from the shady Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), Stanton uses his “powers” to communicate with the dead. In actuality, he’s using information from Dr. Ritter’s files to con rich, grieving subjects into paying him to contact the afterlife. The act winds up killing several people, spurring a murder-suicide from one customer, Miss Kimball (Mary Steenburgen,) and ending with Stanton killing eccentric billionaire Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), as well as his bodyguard (Holt McCallany).

Escaping with their lives after the Grindle swindle, Molly finally leaves Stanton; which isn’t helped by the fact that she knew he was having an affair with Dr. Ritter. The good doctor, as it turns out, was on the take as well, keeping Stan’s money for herself, while preparing to incriminate him for safety. After an attempt on Dr. Ritter’s life, Stan flees, drifting once again as he must stay on the run. 

Which winds us to those final moments in Nightmare Alley, where a broken down and alcohol-addicted Stanton Carlisle is desperate for work. Returning to the life of a carny, there’s only one job a savvy carnival operator (Tim Blake Nelson) would give a man like that. It’s just a temporary gig, until they find the right man for the job, and it’s as the star of the carnival’s geek show. Smiling darkly and laughing the laugh of a man who knows he’s damned, Stanton replies with the dark closing line of the film: “Mister, I was born for it.” 

Bradley Cooper sleeping in a room of fire in Nightmare Alley.

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

The Secrets Of Stanton Carlisle’s Dark Past

Maybe somewhere along the way, Stanton Carlisle could have changed his fate. He honestly tried to do exactly that at the start of Nightmare Alley, after setting a house on fire to cover up a murder he’d committed. As we move along the story of Stan’s ambitious climb to entertaining society, all we know is that he had a bad relationship with his alcoholic father, and carried the watch that his old man coveted so hard.

As it turns out, Mr. Carlisle’s dark past involved letting dear old dad die, due to exposure from an open window. Claiming him a weak man who turned his mother away, leaving the two of them in absolute squalor, Stanton admits his crimes to Dr. Ritter in a psychoanalysis session. Strangely enough, this wasn’t the worst of his crimes, nor is it what sealed his path to dark times. That started at the carnival, and with the most honest of intentions.

Bradley Cooper smiling with Rooney Mara at the carnival in Nightmare Alley.

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

The Spook Show: Stanton’s Path From Drifter To Showman

We see Stanton Carlisle begin his life as a carny in an earnest enough circumstance. He finds the carnival by fate, and is asked by Bruno (Ron Perlman) to stick around and help load out the show on a night of inclement weather. Part of his duties eventually see him taking what should have been a cautionary detour, as he’s enlisted to capture the show’s prized geek, who’s escaped into the funhouse. 

The largest red flags that should have warned Stan of his Nightmare Alley fate come from two of the old hands on the carnival circuit. Clem (Willem Dafoe) lays down the process as to how you can turn any man into a geek, and it involves addiction to alcohol and a bit of opium to help the ride. At this point, Stanton doesn’t drink, as his father’s habit is still fresh in his mind; but that all changes down the line. 

The most important piece of advice comes from Stanton's mentor, Pete (David Strathairn). Teaching Stanton the art of mentalism, he warns him not to get too deep into the weeds, and always let the audience know it’s in fun. Otherwise, he’ll be playing “the spook show,” pretending to be clairvoyant when, in fact, he’s not. People are likely to get hurt if you do that, and Pete knows it for sure. 

Bradley Cooper blindfolded in the middle of his mentalist act in Nightmare Alley.

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

Absolute Truth: Stanton’s Path From Showman To Geek

Ignoring the warning signs, and accidentally killing Pete by feeding his addiction with a bottle of deadly wood alcohol, Stanton takes Molly and his act into the world. Two years have passed since the two left the carnival, and “The Great Stanton” is wowing crowds in Buffalo, New York. Which is where Dr. Ritter gets her hooks into the social climber, and starts to feed his ambitions a little too heartily. 

Before long, Stanton starts his downward spiral of performing “the spook show,” in order to make off with tons of money, and with Dr. Ritter’s help. Gaining inside information on her patients, the act convinces Miss Kimball her dead son misses her and her husband. As if that wasn’t enough, that “success” woos Ezra Grindle into trying to atone for his horrible deeds against young women, spurring from an ill-fated love affair. 

“The Spook Show” has done its deed, and with four dead people on his conscience, Stanton Carlisle loses it all. He even loses Molly, who somehow stuck with him for so long, even after knowing he was cheating on her with Ritter. Broken, penniless, and addicted to the alcohol he got a taste of from Dr. Ritter, Stan becomes the geek he was bound to wind up the whole time.

Toni Collette looks at Bradley Cooper with worry in Nightmare Alley.

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

Was Stanton Carlisle Cursed The Whole Time?

While Nightmare Alley isn’t a strictly supernatural film, at least not compared to Guillermo del Toro’s other work, there’s a case to be made that Stanton could have been cursed. It’s never said in the movie outright, but the attention to his father’s watch almost acts as a dark talisman that symbolizes that his journey was always going to be towards ruin. Killing his father and taking his watch may have seemed like the start of a new life for Stanton, but as the stakes rise and the payout grows, Mr. Carlisle’s ambitions seem to keep him marching towards doom.

In the most “magical” moment of the film, fortune teller Zeena (Toni Collette) even tries to warn Stanton of what’s to come; thanks to a tarot reading. Drawing three cards, she is the ultimate warning sign that he should be taking a moment to think about what he’s doing. Of course, he doesn’t heed those warnings, leaving a trail of consequences in his wake. And as Dr. Ritter warned him, “dealing with Ezra Grindle will have consequences. Permanent ones.”

Could Stanton Carlisle have been cursed throughout all of Nightmare Alley? That depends on how much you consider the man cursed by his own ambitions, and whether or not he could have denied his inner greed. Molly certainly helped keep it at bay for long enough, but in the end, the huckster found himself easy prey to the pretty poisons he allowed himself to indulge in.

If you haven’t seen the absolutely stunning work of Nightmare Alley yet, or find yourself wanting to revisit its charms, you can do just that as the film is currently in theaters. However, should you want to rejoin the world of the living and the light, the showcase of 2021 new movie releases is waiting to show you the way. Just remember to keep your eyes on the cards, and let the audience know it’s all in good fun before the curtain drops. There’s always a geek waiting to be made, and if you’re not careful, that geek could be you. 

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.