On the run after killing his dad, Bradley Cooper wanders mutely into a carnival needing work and food and gets shown around by Willem Dafoe. Ron Perlman is there of course, typecast as a strongman. Cooper’s talents are gradually put to use until he runs off (openly, not in secret) with Rooney Mara to run their own upscale act stolen from mentalist Toni Collette and her late partner David Strathairn.
A couple years later in the plotty, less compelling back half of the movie, the spook act impresses Mary Steenburgen and he’s set up with haunted and dangerous Richard Jenkins. Psychologist Cate Blanchett gives him inside dirt on Jenkins then swindles him, Rooney dislikes his turn to crime-laced trickery, and after it all goes wrong he leaves town in a chicken car, wounded, with nothing and nobody, and comes crawling to new circus master Tim Blake Nelson.
It’s convenient when you’re a circus psychic that everyone in the 1940’s had the same backstory. The movie is as obvious as I’d guessed from the trailer, but the actors and the look of the thing make it completely worthwhile.