At the insistence of Bride of Culture Snob and against my own philosophy, I hereby warn you of major spoilers — of the “Dil has a dick” variety.
The Culture Snob Drunken Commentary Track for The Prestige is available here.
“Every great magic trick consists of three acts. ... Now if you’re looking for the secret, you won’t find it. That’s why there’s a third act, called ‘The Prestige.’ This is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you’ve never seen before.”
The disappointment of Christopher Nolan’s enormously entertaining — and slyly provocative — The Prestige comes in its closing minutes, when it adds a fourth act to the illusion: the final reveal. As any magician will tell you — as the movie itself reminds the audience — knowledge of the secret robs the trick of its power and allure.
The movie, co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan and based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest, features lots of tricks whose mechanics are laid bare, but the last one — what Cutter would call The Prestige’s “prestige” — is a serious letdown, like making the Statue of Liberty disappear and following that with a card trick. And then explaining how the card trick was done.
There is a miscalculation in storytelling here, but the finale only becomes genuinely problematic when Nolan violates of the magicians’ code, clumsily showing the audience how that card trick was accomplished. It’s a genuinely baffling choice: He sucks the delicious mystery right out of an otherwise sterling movie. And by leaving nothing for the audience to figure out, he lets the air out of the movie at the exact moment that it should be taking our breath away with a triumphant surprise.
The Prestige follows two magicians at the dawn of the 20th Century in London. Borden (Christian Bale) is dark and moody, and wants to innovate. Angier (Hugh Jackman) is a natural showman with an electric smile. But when Borden’s actions accidentally lead to the death of Angier’s wife, the two become bitter rivals, each trying to come up with the better trick and undercut the other.
Borden unveils a routine called “The Transported Man” that would appear impossible without the use of a double. Angier suspects that something beyond illusion is at work, and after burying Borden’s assistant alive — at this point the escalation of their war isn’t even complete — gets his enemy to reveal a secret: “Tesla.”
Nolan being Nolan, the story unfolds in fragments. We see Angier trying to secure an audience with Nikola Tesla in Colorado, for instance, long before we know the events that led him there. And the opening scene — a pivotal bit of action late in the film’s chronology — sets the stage, as Angier (performing his own trick) ends up in a locked water tank below stage and drowns while Borden watches. Before we’ve been given this duo’s back story, we understand the stakes in this relationship.
Nolan’s breakthrough, Memento, showed him exploring how structure and meaning can work together, but here the fractured narrative — including its multi-layered, convoluted (but lucid) narrative technique — feels mostly like deliberate misdirection. And yet that’s hardly arbitrary; The Prestige offers the magician’s challenge repeatedly — “Are you watching closely?” — and the nonlinear approach is part of the elaborate setup.
There’s a palpable, dizzying joy to The Prestige’s conception and craftsmanship: the winking casting of Ricky Jay as a hack magician; the recycling of Batman Begins’ Bale and Michael Caine (as Cutter) in ways that resonate with their previous characters; the way the Nolan brothers lay the groundwork for and execute the film’s many twists. There’s a showy, giddy moment when the camera circles two Hugh Jackmans, and it’s done so seamlessly and aggressively that it begs the audience to wonder how the effect was accomplished. That’s balanced by the unfussy presentation of “The Transported Man” trick, and Nolan has so immersed the audience in the culture of magic that it doesn’t even recognize that special effects were used. The Prestige is suffused with playfulness.
But it’s not a lightweight entertainment. Throughout, Nolan pays special attention to the ugly realities that create illusion — epitomized by a crushed bird. He suggests that the magician’s code of secrets is meant to protect the audience’s sensibilities and delusions as much as its awe.
Thematically, the movie gains scope and weight with glimpses of a destructive rivalry between Edison and Tesla that mirrors that of Borden and Angier. Professional pissing matches might be petty, the movie says, but they’re not necessarily trivial. Beyond the obvious effects of the battle on the participants, there’s a societal loss when people choose to fight when they should be collaborating.
And like all of Nolan’s movies, The Prestige is fundamentally a study of obsession and its costs dressed up as a high-concept thriller.
Up until the fourth act, I was having the best time I’d had with a movie in ages — a function of Nolan’s exquisite balance of content and presentation, the light and the dark, plot and theme, pulp fiction and literature, and fantasy and realism. The Prestige confirms what Batman Begins suggested: that Christopher Nolan is the most well-rounded commercial filmmaker working today.
And then he botches it.
(I told you before and I’ll tell you again: Stop reading if you don’t want to know that Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze.)
It’s critical to note that the Nolans’ primary interest with the twists and turns of The Prestige is to play fair. There are two central mysteries — involving the mechanics of two versions of “The Transported Man” — that reach into every corner of the movie. The filmmakers offer ample clues for the audience to figure out what’s going on, and one could argue that the Nolans have even been a little too obvious. But erring on the side of too many clues is preferable to sucker-punching the audience.
The key to understanding Angier’s version of the trick is actually in the movie’s opening shot: identical hats lying on the ground in the woods. There’s an elegance to Nolan’s gradual reveal here; when the cat darts out of Tesla’s lab, only to encounter itself among all those hats, the pieces gently click into place. The chilling reality of Angier’s trick settles in the stomach: Tesla’s machine doesn’t transport but duplicates, and the magician drowned himself (or an earlier version of himself) nightly.
The revelation sends shock waves through the film; the introduction of something that is magic and real rather than mere illusion obliterates the audience’s conception of the movie. We’ve seen what Borden and Angier will do to each other to get ahead, but here we enter into science-fiction ethics — heady questions about the soul and identity and a corruption that would allow a man to murder his literal flesh and blood.
From this point in the movie, though, The Prestige has nowhere to go. The remaining mystery belongs to Borden, and by the time he’s hanged for Angier’s watery death, his return is all but inevitable; there must, of course, be one final confrontation.
But how can you follow Angier’s magic trick? Everything after that is inevitably mundane, and that’s the corner in which The Prestige traps itself. And when it’s revealed in a flurry of visualized realizations by Angier that Borden’s “Transported Man” was accomplished with an identical twin brother — of course! — the film becomes exasperating. The density of exposition in those final moments is dishearteningly clumsy and blunt. (And the final shot is a completely superfluous reinforcement of information we already know; seeing a drowned Angier in one of the tanks underscores that the Nolans didn’t trust their audience.)
The groundwork for the twin is certainly carefully laid, and the motif adds to the film’s thematic richness. Once all of The Prestige’s mysteries have been solved, one can easily see the influence and concerns of two Cronenberg works: Dead Ringers and The Fly. All of these movies deal with the division of self, and The Prestige attacks the topic from multiple angles: look-alikes, natural biological duplication in the womb, and Tesla’s scientific process.
So I’m not suggesting that the Nolans should have trimmed the narrative, or pared down the telegraphing of the twists. Rather, they should have ended the movie quickly and without its dying realizations: a simple sequence in which Borden emerges from the darkness and shoots and instantly kills Angier.
Think of the buzz and confusion and discussion The Prestige would have generated. People would have argued about and puzzled over the film, like they did Memento and Mulholland Drive. They would have gone back to it, to try to figure out how there were two Bordens. And most of them would have eventually come to the conclusion, aided by myriad well-placed clues, that there were twin brothers.
The movie itself is set up as a metaphor for the art of illusion, after all. Preserving some of The Prestige’s mystery could have salvaged its magic.