The film opens with Stanton “Stan” Carlisle
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, presents a “geek” 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 of the chicken, to the
horror and amusement of the crowd.
Stan is spotted by other carnies, strongest man
Bruno and the world’s smallest man Major Mosquito,
who thinks he is up to no good, but Stan ends
up getting a job as a carny working with them.
After proving himself useful, Clem allows Stan
to join them as they move to another carnival.
On their next job, Stan starts to grow close to
one of the carnies, Molly Cahill, 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,
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, whose act
is being a clairvoyant to the patrons, along
with her husband, Pete. 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 hit Stan since he had 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. 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. Afterward, Stan
speaks to Judge Charles Kimball, 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. 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 she will
be reunited with Julian based on what Stan
told her. 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 on 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 was now homeless, broke,
and a full-blown alcoholic. He ends up at another
carnival, where he speaks to the boss. 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.