Every year promises at least one case where two films hit theaters with remarkably similar premises, and the stale nature of Hollywood programming typically assures a number of films that could be easily swapped for each other. Occasionally, however, the unified thread of two films comes seemingly out of nowhere. It happened back in 1998 when two computer-animated films about ants somehow came to fruition within months of each other, but the most puzzling example of recent times must be 2006's double dose of period films about magic*.
I saw The Prestige twice in short order after it first hit home video in late '06. A 17-year-old with no concept of cinematic nuance nor any inclination to examine a film beyond a superficial reading, I enjoyed the various twists and turns of the plot, liked all of the actors and thought that the movie looked beautiful. But once the final twist threw me for one last loop, I emerged feeling I'd nothing left to gain, and the second viewing was an arduous one. A year or so later, shortly after my "awakening" (to use the most pretentious, haughty term possible) but some time before I truly committed myself to film, I caught the other 2006 magic film, The Illusionist, and took far more readily to its twisted tale of romance over Christopher Nolan's examination of professional and personal rivalry.
I couldn't help but think of the film again as my anticipation for Inception grew over the course of last week, and I noticed that, as the various movie blogs began writing a multitude of posts on Nolan in preparation for his latest (especially a terrific blogathon over at Things That Don't Suck). What caught my eye the most was the attention given to The Prestige, with some writers I highly respect not simply rating it at the top of Nolan's canon but among the finest works of the previous decade. Intrigued, as well as giddy with post-Inception euphoria, I picked up Nolan's fifth feature to see what I'd no doubt missed as a half-interested teenager, and I could not have guessed just how much had flown over my head.
What hell it must have been to review this film for a publication upon its release, with nought but a single screening to sort out its labyrinthine plot and an inability to discuss the film without discussing the ending, which one couldn't do in circulated print. Yet the great irony of the difficulty of tap-dancing around spoilers is that the film deliberately spoils itself in the opening. Not only does it contain key shots that will become clear only at the end, the film presents the rest of the ending in open sight, merely changing the mise-en-scène. I cannot go into great detail without stealing at least portions of Bryce Wilson's magnificent post on this sneaky trick, but those who have seen the film might be amazed to see the parallels if they pay attention to the canaries John Cutter (Michael Caine) keeps for his boss' illusions, as well as Cutter's enticing sell of magic. He tells those listening to him, within the film and without, that we subconsciously do not attempt to figure out the trick until after it's completed because we "don't really want to see it. Not yet."
Having now established himself as the great trickster of contemporary mainstream cinema, Nolan positions The Prestige as, if nothing else, the decoding phrase that unlocks his filmmaking ethos, the "keyword" that the two warring magicians constantly fight over to unlock trick-explaining codes. Everything lies out in the open, perhaps to the point that all the objects choke and clutter, but we never notice. If we do, we pass it out of mind, unwilling to spoil the act until it's completed. With a good enough showman, an audience will overlook practically anything. I know that's not exactly a ringing endorsement of Nolan as a filmmaker, but I think it suggests that, even if he didn't enjoy the hype afforded to him, he could still enrapture a crowd to the point that his shortcomings become part of the act, a misdirection that teases the audience further.
Writing about The Prestige presents a distinct challenge, even when one allows for spoilers, and there will be spoilers. The revelation that the beginning contains the ending is liberating, because getting at the ending in fine detail would require such a constant spoiling of each event leading up to it that such a review would be better served by simply pointing readers to where they could acquire a copy of the film's screenplay. Still, there's no way to get at the depths of the film -- and more than any other Nolan film, perhaps even the layered Inception, The Prestige has extreme depth of vision -- without discussing a few elements of the story, and while criticism is always best enjoyed after seeing the film in question, I stress even further the need to see the film before reading anything about it.
From the start, Nolan throws the audience. The timeline jumps so erratically that the primarily linear nature of Memento's reverse storytelling looks like child's play in comparison. In short order, we see a magician placed on trial for the murder of another, falling back in time to a moment in which the deceased performer was alive and had pilfered his rival's journal. The diary then throws the audience back once more, to the beginning of the two magicians' relationship. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a working-class grunt with a deep understanding of illusions, pairs with Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), an aristocrat who slums it by making a living out of his hobby. The two work as plants for "Milton the Magician" (actor-magician Ricky Jay), a talented but banal performer whose safe routines bore the adventurous Borden. The entire point of magic, he argues, is that it shows an audience something they've never seen before. For a magician to stick to the same routine for years is no different than a stand-up comedian becoming so stale that an audience, even an enthused one that doesn't realize what it's doing, nails the coffin lid shut by shouting out the punchlines in misplaced excitement.
So, the two set out on their own, accompanied by Cutter, the ingénieur who designs their tricks, and Angier's wife Julia (Piper Perabo). The combination of Angier's charisma and Borden's ambition makes for a lucrative partnership, but a few gently ominous lines about Borden's knot-tying in relation to the water escape trick leads to tragedy when Julia drowns on-stage, unable to free herself from the ropes and break out of the box. Naturally, the act collapses due to the performers' shock and bad publicity. Angier, consumed by grief, not only terminates his friendship with Borden but devotes himself to destroying the other magician.
What follows is a constant game of cat-and-mouse: one magician plants himself in the audience of the other, ensures that he is the chosen volunteer, then shames and wounds the rival in front of everyone. Angier sabotages a bullet catch trick that costs Borden two fingers, and Borden, a master of disguise, comes on stage to "assist" Angier with a collapsible birdcage and triggers the device early, killing the dove and crushing the fingers of the refined, upper-class lady also chosen to help with the act.
Rivalry morphs into obsession, and the thin line separating the two fits neatly into the director's fondness for duality and the evenly matched war between yin and yang. Borden has the talent, the ambition, dedication and skill to make better illusions, while Angier has the showmanship. Their stage names communicate this split: Borden becomes "The Professor," a name that connotes brilliance to the point of boredom, someone so skilled that they cannot relate to the uneducated. Angier chooses the sobriquet "The Great Danton," a name that makes no sense but doesn't need to: it has "great" right there in the title, and magic relies on that ostentation. People don't go to a magic show to learn, they go to see a man in a mustache pull shit out of a hat.
This opens up a subplot that Nolan wisely does not over-stress, the idea that the audience for mass entertainment will always choose a distraction over real art. Angier understandably omits the water escape trick from his act, and Cutter skirts around the real motivation to a theater owner skeptical of the performer by explaining that people want to see such things out of a latent desire to see them fail. Even those who do not openly pronounce a sense of schadenfreude secretly hope to see something go off the rails. When Borden crushes the bird and the woman's fingers, the crowd gasps with artificial concern but makes no move to help the injured lady. The patrons of the bar where Angier shoots off Borden's ring and little fingers openly laugh at the magician's pain, delighted to see him shamed so terribly. Thus, Nolan implicates the audience in the fracas, making them responsible for driving the demand for the magicians to perform more dangerous stunts and encouraging the very public feud between the two because they will accept nothing less**.
Through it all, Nolan uses legerdemain as a way of blurring the line between the two men. Only at the end does one emerge looking more twisted than the other, and everything that comes before it makes "allegiance" impossible: one understands Angier's anger over his wife's death, but his vicious response to an accident makes Borden into another victim. Then, we see Borden slip in and out of an abusive attitude toward his wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), that so torments her that the audience can no longer exactly root for him, either. The point of The Prestige is not to divide the audiences into facile "Team ____" camps but to show how such obsessions ruin people. When Angier's assistant/mistress Olivia (Scarlett Johansson, saddled with the only underwritten part in the film), seemingly defects to Borden and insists to the streetwise magician that she's telling the truth about wanting to come to him, he rightly notes, "Now that is a slippery notion in our line of work." We cannot be sure if she is lying, even though the hurt she expresses at having been originally sent to Borden by Angier as if a mere pawn appears genuine.
Johansson and Hall bear most of the film's emotion as the men harden over the course of the narrative, and their constant feelings of neglect and bitterness over being relegated to secondary importance in the lives allow Nolan to step outside what might have been a solipsistic venture to show how others are affected by such quibbles. Never is this more evident than when Olivia is in the room when Angier's hatred moves beyond its original motivation: "I don't care about my wife," he screams when unable to figure out Borden's Transported Man trick. "I care about his secret." Her look of shocked disgust mirrors our own, and it's no wonder she leaves him before he eventually stoops to reusing the water escape and actually invoking his wife's memory as nothing more than a method of enticing the crowd.
Yet Nolan's greatest method of stepping outside the fight long enough to gauge both its absurdity and its universality involves the bizarre but ingenious use of Nikola Tesla. David Bowie not only gives his best performance, a dubious honor in a secondary career consisting mainly of extended cameos. But he tops even his performance as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tesla is the perfect historical figure to feature in Nolan's period piece, as, like the faithful set design, he comes straight out of reality but, like the madness of a magician's war, he has an element of absurdity to him. Nolan flew out to meet Bowie directly after the rocker turned him down, an action that seems less a case a fandom and more proof that Nolan knew exactly what and who the part called for. Bowie certainly knows his way around a silly concept, and his straight-faced take on something as inherently ludicrous as Ziggy Stardust suits him to play Tesla in middle age, no longer enjoying the respect he once commanded but not yet a broken old man lost in his ideas. Tesla's eccentricity bubbles to the surface, but Bowie checks it behind an exterior of aloof propriety. Having become rock royalty, Bowie behaves like a self-made aristocrat, refined but kooky, with the added suspicion that he might lose everything as he was not born into his status.
Tesla exists in the film mainly to supply Angier with a great plot device that will take his magic show to the next level, but he also serves to take the audience outside of the main story to show how commonplace something as ridiculous as professional rivalry turned personal. Tesla hides in a compound surrounded by electrified fence, wary of the goons of Thomas Edison, who eventually find and destroy his lab. Like Angier and Borden, Tesla and Edison were both masters of their shared profession, and together they could have advanced technology even more than they did on their own. Instead, Edison brutally stamped out Tesla, portraying the Austro-Hungarian emigré's alternating current technology as the deadly, uncontrollable work of a madman. Thus, Tesla's presence in the film plays beautifully into Nolan's method of making the fantastical concrete: lest we think this story of fighting magicians be ridiculous, consider that these two innovative geniuses were reduced to slandering each other, too stubborn and greedy to ever concede that the other could ever be right. Amusingly, Tesla grounds the film even though he introduces its most absurd element: the device that allows Angier to perform what is for all intents and purposes real magic, leading Cutter to marvel that a "wizard" designed the trick. The scientist's bitterness over his colleagues' complete rejection of his poetic ideas about science are tucked neatly not only in his caustic quote that man's "grasp exceeds his nerve" but in the letter he sends to Angier with his completed machine. Tesla urges the magician to destroy it, but even in print his plea seems hollow and perfunctory; magicians are the only people left who can get away with showing people something they cannot fathom. To do so as a scientist is career suicide.
Without going into complex detail of the machine Tesla gives to Angier, its side effect brings the theme of duality to an extreme. Where Inception visualized the duality in a person by internalizing it and showing how two projections of the same person could walk around his mind, The Prestige takes one person and multiplies them (here come the spoilers I want to get at). Tesla's machine produces copies of Angier, and only one can survive each show; suddenly, the crucifixion pose of martyrdom that the magician makes at the beginning and is repeated later takes on a chilling implication. Meanwhile, the revelation that Borden's ingénieur and assistant Fallon is his identical twin explains the sharp divide in personality. Suddenly, the occasionally stiff performance Bale gives morphs into his finest work: when he looked half-enthused when Sarah came to him with news of pregnancy and muttered a throwaway line that Fallon should have been there to hear the news, now we understand that it was Alfred's brother who received the news. In retrospect, the performances Bale and Hall give are heart-wrenching, which may feel like a cheat but see how affecting they are as you watch the film more than once to see that there is genuine emotion here. Hall in particular is devastating: Nolan turns the idea of seeing a calm, loving person one day and a monster the next plays as a low-key take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it's Sarah who's left not knowing whether the man she interacts with each day will be the one who loves her or the one who cares for Olivia.
That depth of understanding and character insight amidst the broken narrative makes the best case yet for Nolan as a filmmaker with a grasp on his ideas: where he and editor Lee Smith let too much get away from them in The Dark Knight, but this film grants them the freedom to toy with expectations while still having a clear idea of what each cut means. Borden marvels at a Chinese magician who pretends to be crippled even off the stage, something his then-friend Angier cannot spot because he could not imagine taking his act with him. Later, we see Borden's own commitment, not simply with the nature of his and his brother's portrayal of Fallon but in a key scene where Borden does not take off his mustache at dinner with Sarah because he feels he needs to keep up appearances for those who might have just watched him.
Only after an hour passes does the opening shot, of a bunch of top hats lying in a field, become clear, but by then it's taken on a metaphorical importance, a sort-of magician's graveyard where rival conjurers are sent after destroying each other. By the time the film reaches its final shot, that idea has become cemented in a horrifying surreality, and Nolan has made his film into an unlikely treatise on the lengths artists go to for their craft. On repeat viewings, this theme echoes gently in the shots of those hats, and the refrain of magicians needing to get their hands "dirty," accompanied by later images of the murderous actions of both leads, finds a hauntingly poetic conclusion placed at the beginning of the story along with the rest of the ending.
I use the term 'poetic' in relation to Nolan -- for the first time -- with confidence. The Prestige adheres to his usual, economic style of placing in the frame that which is necessary to convey the scene and scarcely more than that; that is not to call him minimalistic, which would be egregiously off-base, but rather utilitarian. Items pop up in the mise-en-scène that are too ornamental for minimalism, but they serve a purpose beyond mere prettiness. With this film, however, Nolan successfully turns that style toward a slightly more abstract aesthetic to match his far-out subject matter. Who can forget the shot of Angier standing inside Tesla's complex under a blanket of heavy fog, only for the scientist's assistant, Alley (Andy Serkis), to flip a switch and illuminate hundreds of light bulbs unencumbered by heavy, direct current wires, merely free bulbs that grow in the mist as if the souls of those who once owned those cloned hats.
Pay attention as well to the way the director uses the spotlight. Stage lights are hellish things, so bright they blind those on-stage, which has the upshot of preventing nervous performers from seeing anyone in the crowd but the problem of forcing the performer to look head-on into a miniature sun for an hour or two. They also give off intense heat, and even someone giving an undemanding performance for a high school band recital will be sweating within minutes. But the spotlight in The Prestige is cold and soft, extremely bright but in a way that seems to absorb the other lights in a room rather than overpower them. The light recalls the same spotlight, stolen from a cold winter's moon, that shone on Alex in A Clockwork Orange when his reprogrammers "demonstrate" him to a crowd of skeptics. There's nothing enticing about this limelight, only a soul-sucking maw that never looks more horrific than when it catches Julia drowning in the box, surrounding her with an ethereal aura that makes her look like a dying angel. Nolan returns to the power of that shot in the final moment, which adds the weight of its reveal even as Nolan overlaps the same speech Cutter gave at the start, making the true twist of the film that we truly knew everything about it after three minutes.
That Nolan should place the ending of his film right in the beginning should not surprise those familiar with his work. The director routinely bookends his films with matching shots, in which he returns to the first scene with similar, if not exact, mise-en-scène but radically altered circumstances. Memento showed us an unchanged protagonist who’d nevertheless become the antagonist. The Dark Knight ended under similar circumstances, though the hero who’d dipped into villainy understood what he’d become, and the savior seen at the beginning morphed into the shade of the true hero would save Gotham. Inception’s first shot only became clear at the film’s end, once the director had proven that, for him, dreams did not look so different from reality after all (or that he was making a meta-cinematic movie about movies, but that's a subject for another article).
I cannot quite say whether The Prestige is Nolan’s best work to date, not without a few more viewings of Inception under my belt (I think this will still come out on top). But what both films share is a visual adventurousness not characteristic of the director’s other movies and a focus on genre (and genre breakdown and subsequent reconstruction) without letting the themes overpower the movie, as they occasionally did in the otherwise magnificent Dark Knight. Additionally, the two show Nolan’s clearest grasp on densely layered narratives, leaving a trail of crumbs leading through his mazes that the audience does not notice until its unknowingly scuffled some of the trail and must piece a few broken segments back together.
I used to say that I preferred The Illusionist because I felt it better conveyed the feeling of wonder and excitement that magic created, yet now I see that no other film so perfectly embodies the twists, misdirection and density that great illusions require. Though Nolan has always loved his tricks, it nevertheless surprises that he should be the one to capture magic in the actual direction. What's fascinating about magic is that we all con ourselves into believing in it. No magician pulls his illusions to manipulate audience; he fills a need within ourselves that wants to see something strange, even if we know it's not real. So, Nolan really is a con artist, pulling the wool over our eyes to stretch out a three-minute experimental short film into a complex, thematically rich tale of obsession, artistic martyrdom and dualism that is literalized, then made abstract, then made literal once more when the magicians ultimately flip roles, Borden becoming the showman who embarrasses Angier, who, with the aid of "real magic," becomes the artistic genius. But it is only when it becomes clear that neither party truly wins that The Prestige cements its status as one of the strangest but most beautiful mainstream movies of the last 20 years, and perhaps the one Nolan film I could press myself to call a masterpiece.
*In yet another funny twist, 2006 contained a third magic film, Woody Allen's Scoop, set in modern times and starring both Jackman and Johansson.
**Consider how many people go to see actors shoot at each other and "die" in choreographed explosions compared to the number who will see a movie about a family dealing internally with a relative's death.