Pete’s pre-death speech to Bradley Cooper’s Stan in Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley sets up the subtext of the ending of the film perfectly.
One particular moment in Nightmare Alley sees Bradley Cooper’s character, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, receive a speech from Pete, and it’s a scene that sets up the ending of the film perfectly. The film was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who usually makes horror movies — though Nightmare Alley is certainly sinister in its own right. Though Stan ignores Pete’s advice, it foreshadows much of the narrative’s dark direction and proves to be at the heart of the film’s message.
Nightmare Alley sees drifter Stan land a job at a carnival, where he meets some weird and wonderful people who change his life forever. Stan soon begins working with the clairvoyant act “Madame Zeena,” along with her husband, Pete. In the act, they use coded language and cold reading tricks, the methods of which Pete keeps recorded in a secret book. Stan learns much of the dark craft of psychokinesis from this act and looks to become a professional mentalist himself.
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Upon attempting to steal this book from Pete, Pete gives Stan this lecture very soon before he dies (which contains some of the best quotes in Nightmare Alley):
“Stan, this book – it can be misused. You understand? It’s why I stopped… doing the act. I got shuteye! When a man believes his own lies, starts believing that he has the power, he’s got shuteye! Cus now he believes it’s all true. And people get hurt – good, God-fearing people. And then you lie. You lie! And when the lies end, there it is. The face of God staring at you, straight. No matter where you turn. No man can outrun God, Stan.”
Indeed, after his failed attempted career as a mentalist, Stan is unable to outrun this fate. By the end of the film, he is a bum, utterly penniless, and on the run from the law, so Pete’s wisdom-infused speech foreshadows Nightmare Alley’s ending uncannily. Stan would surely have died of either starvation or by execution by the authorities for his crimes of at least three counts of capital murder, if it wasn’t for his arrival at another carnival and landing a job there, this time as a “geek.”
As Willem Dafoe’s character explains to Stan during a café scene midway through the film, a “geek” is a term that describes a carny worker so useless and devoid of talent that the only thing they are good for is biting the heads off of chickens in the sideshow. Come the end of the film, it proves to be a perfectly fitting profession for Stan, as he has no true talent, only lies and “shuteye.”
Pete’s speech is primarily realized through Cate Blanchett’s character, psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter, who betrays Stan to set him up. Earlier in the film, Stan humiliates Lilith at one of the shows of his psychic act. Lilith attempts to expose the corruptness of the show, but Stan humiliates her instead with his cold reading skills. Utilizing her own psychological skills, a cunning plot is then devised by Lilith which ultimately sees Stan in big trouble. The juxtaposition between these two professions – psychiatry and mentalism – is exposed to reveal the former as a decent and good profession, and the latter as the manipulative, dishonest, selfish, and toxic dark art that it is.
Stan cannot outrun God, as Pete warned, and he doesn’t. For his grave lack of moral principle and general decency as a human being, it is Stan’s true and just fate that is realized by the end of Nightmare Alley. Though Pete’s speech spoiled the ending somewhat, it successfully left viewers questioning the definition of integrity, and what it means to be a human being.
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Daniel is a passionate writer, with extensive copywriting and content writing experience. With an unbridled love for all things cinema, he has a particular love for horror films, video games, and all those classic films we all know and love.
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