By Scott Martin
The Prestige, USA / UK, 2006
Directed by Christopher Nolan
The prestige is only the third act. At least that’s what we’re told by Cutter (Michael Caine) in his opening monologue. It’s more a set of instructions for the film, we’ll discover, but that’s a later point. Every magic trick comes in three parts: one – the pledge, in which you give the audience something real to hold onto; two – the turn, in which you take that something and turn into something impossible, the part where the magic lies; three – the prestige, in which everything comes back to normal, and the audience (hopefully) cheers. Usually, magic is all about sleight of hand and misdirection. Christopher Nolan is great at that; recall the difficult but astonishing Memento (2000). There’s a pledge, a turn, and a prestige in that, but here, in The Prestige, we live in the turn, while the pledge is revealed to us in flashbacks, and then the prestige isn’t what it’s supposed to be, but rather something that cheats and gives an easy out.
Still, though, the pledge and the turn make the film exciting and the thriller it should be. Don’t be fooled – this film isn’t strictly about magicians. It’s a cat-and-mouse game about two men obsessed with one-upping each other, and who both end up destroying themselves in the process.
The film opens on a small patch of land filled with top hats and black cats. Cutter sets the rules for the film by describing the different parts of any given magic trick, pretty much telling us what to look for. He later notes that the audience knows that what they’re seeing isn’t magic, but something entirely explainable. Part of the fun is choosing not to want to know, instead choosing to be mystified. He’s right; if you don’t think about this film too much, it’s an entirely enjoyable thriller about two men trying to break each other, and succeeding, right before our eyes.
The Prestige itself, as a film, is dissected into the three parts of the magic trick. Most of the pledge is shown in flashbacks, giving the audience a backstory necessary to follow the turn, which is where the film takes place. By the time we get to the prestige of the trick, we’ve been given several chances to see what’s going on, or to figure it out for ourselves, but, as Cutter has instructed us, part of the fun is not wanting to know. The film is cut into three pieces, and then put back together, like any good classic magic trick. It isn’t so much about picking a card, any card, it’s about picking a character and trying to follow them as best we can.
Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, respectively, two rival magicians hellbent on destroying each other. As the film begins, they work as two “volunteers” in audiences for a magician, and Robert’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo) is the assistant. No one in the audience knows this, of course, until Alfred ties a knot too tight one night and Julia drowns in a 400-gallon water tank, the same one used by Harry Houdini in his legendary Chinese Water Torture act. Alfred is shunned, and he leaves to be on his own, while Robert is left to pick up the pieces and put his shattered life back together. This is where the obsession begins; Robert follows Alfred around on his shows until he sees his chance for revenge, and then Alfred follows Robert around to get him back for the last time. If that doesn’t make sense, think about Roger Michell’s Changing Lanes (2002) and the rivalry between Gavin (Ben Affleck) and Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson). That’s also a better movie, if you have the time.
If you take time to really dig into the metaphors behind the ending, it might not seem like a cheat. I can’t go into it here without spoiling it for everyone, but I can safely say that Robert’s obsession allows for nothing to be hidden up his sleeves. He’s not just obsessed with Alfred, to the point where he pushes everyone away, including Alfred himself, but he’s manic about most everything else as well. He’s a truly broken individual, chasing after an illusion, in more ways than one. Alfred is as obsessed with illusion as Robert is, and the game continues to a perverse and inhuman level.
Good thrillers are built on atmosphere, and the film has plenty to spare. Beautiful music creates uneasy moods, and the lush landscape on which this film is built makes for an unsettling viewing experience. I could classify this as a horror film, but that might take it a step too far. The cinematography, like in most Nolan films, is one of the highlights, but throughout all the visuals, the complex story, and the tight technical work (on all levels), the performances make this film what it is. Jackman and Bale play their characters with extreme conviction. It’s impossible not to believe their duel, no matter how insane it gets, simply because of how much they believe it.
Caine lends a large supporting role as a mentor to Robert and Alfred, and does his usual infallible best. He has a subtlety to everything he says that makes me think about what’s going on in his character’s head, not just what he’s saying; I feel him when he acts. Rebecca Hall stars as Bale’s wife, Sarah; she gives a powerful display of a specific kind of paranoia, the kind in which you are exactly right about what’s going on, but everyone thinks you’re crazy because what’s actually going on is too crazy to believe. She nails it. Scarlett Johansson doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Robert’s assistant, Olivia Wenscombe, but she does it with fervor. Unfortunately, she’s just overshadowed in an underwritten role. Also, I’d be remiss to not mention the supporting performances of Andy Serkis as Alley, a middle-man scientist from New York, working for a man (a real historical figure, in fact) named Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, doing his best Pierce Brosnan impression).
By the end of the trick, the audience is given a chance to recollect what they’ve seen and put the pieces together themselves. Watching it backwards, like Memento, wouldn’t help solve anything; only watching the film again, and maybe again after that, to pick up clues you might have missed. I think you’ll get it the first time around, but rewatching the film certainly helps. It’s not as subtle a twist ending as, say, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999), where you have to go back and think about everything and all the little details. Everything is in front of you, just in the wrong order. Again, we’re watching the “magic” part of the magic trick. The set-up is slowly revealed as the film goes on, and technically the prestige has been in front of us the whole time. When it’s revealed to us, however, it breaks a magician’s key rule: it told us how it did it. I wonder if Nolan thought about that.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com