Nightmare Alley Parent Guide
This is a story of the price of hubris and cruelty, told with lots of violence and other negative content.
Parent Movie Review
On the run from a dark, mysterious, and still-smoldering past, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds himself down and way out in a rural America caught in the death grip of the Great Depression. Luckily for Carlisle, he soon finds work at a travelling carnival, run by the unscrupulous but efficient Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe). The carnival features a vibrant “freak show” headed by the resident “geek” (Paul Anderson), a dubious magic act starring Zeena (Toni Collette), strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman), and a shocking electricity show with Molly (Rooney Mara). Although originally hired for physical labor, Carlisle soon learns some tricks from Zeena’s lover, the inebriated magician Pete (David Strathairn). He is particularly interested in the fine art of mentalism – staged telepathy and spirit communication, built on an ingenious system of hidden signals and astute assumptions. Carlisle starts to dream, hatching plans that are bigger and more polished than this dirty little travelling circus; plans which also involve him and Molly making a splash in ritzy New York clubs. But while the big city promises big money, it comes with much larger pitfalls. Pitfalls which will swallow Carlisle and Molly whole if he’s not careful.
A ponderous look at the dark underbelly of sideshow spiritualism and so-called mentalist performances, Nightmare Alley is, in part, a classic tragedy: good people come to a bad end. The other parts, however, are much more about the price of hubris and cruelty. Carlisle is compelling as a character partially because, for all his flair and brilliant showmanship, he is a thoroughly unpleasant man, and all his flashy conjuration merely brings his filthy little chickens home to roost.
As you may imagine, this is not exactly a family Christmas romp. For starters, it’s directed by the brilliant Guillermo Del Toro, and while he is a fascinating director, he isn’t renowned for family-friendly entertainment. This movie contains several scenes of gruesome violence, implied sexual content, profanity, and addiction. These flaws all come with serious consequences, but unless you’re prepared for the joys of a geek show – namely, a man biting the head off live chickens – this might not be the film for you.
But, if you’ve got the stomach for it, Nightmare Alley is a captivating film. The plot marches right along, carrying you with it, immersing you in the joys and terrors of art-deco New York in the late 1930’s and early 40’s. It drags its unfortunate characters through even worse horrors – characters who have to learn the hard way exactly what it profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul.Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Rooney Mara, Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett. Running time: 150 minutes. Theatrical release December 17, 2021. Updated May 31, 2022
Rating & Content Info
Why is Nightmare Alley rated R? Nightmare Alley is rated R by the MPAA for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language.
Violence: A body is seen being set alight. A man bites the head off a live chicken. Several bodies of varying species are seen preserved in jars. A character is poisoned and dies. A character is punched in the face. A person is shown shooting another person and then themselves. A man is beaten to death. Another is seen violently struck twice by a car. A character is deliberately frozen to death. There are references to violence, murders, and suicide.
Sexual Content: There are several scenes of implied sexual content, although no nudity or graphic detail is seen. A woman is shown partially undressed. A man is groped while taking a bath. There are references to adultery.
Profanity: There are 11 sexual expletives, three scatological profanities, and infrequent uses of mild curses and terms of deity.
Alcohol / Drug Use: Adult characters are frequently seen smoking tobacco and drinking. Some characters are depicted as alcoholics. Individuals are occasionally given alcohol laced with opiates.
Page last updated May 31, 2022
Nightmare Alley Parents' Guide
What drives Carlisle to do the things he does? How does he manipulate the people around him? What is his downfall?
What is a “geek” show? How were they received historically? Is the movie an accurate depiction of geeks? What are some of the moral issues around “freak shows”?
Loved this movie? Try these books…This film is based on a book of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, published in 1946.
Related home video titles:
Younger audiences looking for a fun carnival experience should avoid Disney’s bizarre remake of Dumbo (2019). A better made but still unsettling look at circuses is the musical The Greatest Showman. Older viewers with an appetite for dark and difficult stories should try other Guillermo Del Toro films like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, or Crimson Peak. They might also enjoy noir films like Motherless Brooklyn, The Little Stranger, Shutter Island, or No Country for Old Men. Adults with strong stomachs could also try films like The Lighthouse, The Power of the Dog, The Humans, or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.