In 1939, an ambitious grifter named Stan Carlyle (Bradley Cooper) gets a job at a carnival and watches a geek show in which a deranged man eats a live chicken. He meets Madame Zeena (Toni Collette), who has a clairvoyant act with her alcoholic husband Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn). They use coded language and cold reading tricks to appear to read minds, all of which Pete has written down in a secret book. Pete teaches much of it to Stan but warns him not to pretend to speak to the dead because that can end so badly.
The owner of the carnival, Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) hires terminal alcoholics to be his geeks and keeps them stoned on opium-laced alcohol. Stan is attracted to Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) and asks her to leave the carny with him, but she refuses. One night, Pete asks Stan to get him a drink and is later found dead. We are to assume that Stan gave him the opium cocktail, because soon after that Stan takes over the cold-reading act using Pete’s book. Molly leaves the carny with Stan.
Two years later, Stan has a classy psychic act for the wealthy elite of Buffalo, New York, with Molly as his assistant. During a performance, their act is interrupted by psychologist Doctor Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) in an attempt to bust their act, but Stan uses his cold-reading skills to best her and she is impressed. He then reads Judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill), who offers to pay for a private consultation to help his wife (Mary Steenburgen) communicate with their dead son. Molly objects, but Stan can’t resist the money.
Doctor Ritter meets with Stan. She learns that he probably killed Pete and his own alcoholic father, who rejected him as a child. She gives him information about the Kimballs which allows him to fake a successful séance. She will not take part of the profit but agrees to hold onto the money to hide it from Molly. Judge Kimball offers to refer him to one of Ritter’s patients, the wealthy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). Doctor Ritter tells him about the abortion of a woman called Dorrie in Grindle’s past and Stan and Ritter begin an affair. He begins drinking.
Judge Kimball’s wife murders her husband and commits suicide to be united with their son, and the police are alerted. Grindle demands that Stan make Dorrie appear in a séance. He plans to have Molly pose as Dorrie from afar, but Grindle realizes it is a scam. He hits Molly and threatens Stan. Stan beats him to death and runs over the man’s armed bodyguard with his car. Molly leaves him. Stan arrives at Doctor Ritter’s office, but she cheats him out of the money. He attacks her. She shoots off part of his ear and taunts him. He flees and becomes lost in the hobo circuit. In an alcoholic haze, he remembers killing his father. Stan tries out for a psychic act in a carnival, but the owner offers him a drink and a temporary job as a geek.
This dark psychological thriller was co-written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham. A previous version was made in 1947 with Tyrone Power. Del Toro produced with J. Miles Dale and Bradley Cooper. It was held up by Covid for a while but premiered at the end of 2021, distributed by Searchlight Pictures. It garnered positive reviews but flopped at the box-office. It received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. I suppose audiences were cool to its psychological rather than supernatural horror, but I found it chilling as I watched the protagonist’s life inexorably unravel around him. Martin Scorsese wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times urging people to see it.
The film went on Covid hiatus before the early scenes were filmed and Bradley Cooper used the time to lose 15 pounds and look younger. Rooney Mara used the time to have a baby. When Stan hides in the train with the chickens, he falls on his back and takes the position of the Hanged Man in the Tarot Cards, which had predicted his downfall. There were subtle references to the movie Freaks. The woodwork panels in the psychiatrist’s office looked like Rorschach inkblots. When Guillermo del Toro’s father was kidnapped and held for ransom in Mexico, so-called psychics appeared out of the woodwork to give comfort and collect money from his mother, and del Toro became fascinated with them. But he still kicked them out.