The Prestige arrives packed with more dirty tricks, dark secrets, and unexpected revelations than a hotly contested congressional race. And, like those electoral battles, even after you know how it all turns out, it can be rather difficult to determine exactly what happened and why. Yet even if the story occasionally appears to do the impossible, there can be no doubt that it’s often a breathtaking spectacle to watch. Director Christopher Nolan’s fiendishly plotted movie about dueling illusionists is a masterful bit of cinematic wizardry that is both intimate and epic — like using sleight of hand to make an elephant vanish.
Nolan’s movie is a brooding genre mindbender, blending turn of the century British mystery with the tech-driven historical revisionism of steampunk. The movie focuses on a rivalry between two stage magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), each determined to best the other’s show. The two illusionists fight it out in the playbill-lined theaters of London, obsessively foiling each other’s performances and stealing each other’s tricks while juggling families and romances. After Angier’s mentor and trick-designer Cutter (Michael Caine) is unable to satisfy demands for ever-more complicated illusions, the magician heads off to the U.S. in search of Nicolai Tesla (played here by a prickly, aloof David Bowie) and a mythical machine that promises to do what stage-bound illusionists can only fake. It’s a magician’s battle royale staged as part inventor’s odyssey and part competitive showmanship.
Nolan, who made his name with the ingeniously backwards Memento, has pushed that film’s non-linear narrative structure into even more fragmented territory, once again exploring the relationship between time and memory. The story unfolds in disconnected shards of flashbacks, flashbacks-within-flashbacks, and narration by multiple characters in multiple time periods. Jumbling the narrative like this creates the sensation that the story is being remembered as it’s told, with various story pieces emerging without immediately discernable order. Sometimes it’s not clear exactly where or when a scene is occurring till after the fact: Like a good magician, Nolan is a master of distraction and obfuscation.
Much of the movie simply involves setting various plot mechanisms in motion: It works like a Rube Goldberg mousetrap, with each of the movie’s various elements twisted, tightened, and meticulously set in place. During most of the construction, though, it’s not clear entirely what’s being built, and even in the final moments when things finally go off, you can’t quite be certain how it works — only that it does. The film’s finale is a double-whammy doozy with enough “Whoa” factor to make you dizzy on the way out.
As befitting the director behind Batman Begins and Memento, the movie is layered with fractured identities and mysteries both scientific and mystical. The magicians are not merely rivals; they are symmetrical opposites — duplicates in reverse — each vying for the same fanfare in their careers, the same women, the same crowd-luring illusions. The primary conflict, in fact, is over a trick that appears to require the magician to find a double. The film gives the two magicians’ actions and personalities a careful balance, as if to suggest a single man at war with himself, only able to let one side survive.
Symmetry also pops up in comparisons between the feats of science and magic.
“The truly extraordinary is not permitted in science and industry,” Cutter says, explaining that theatrical magic shows are one of the few places where the public is willing to accept the fantastical and mysterious. The movie’s introduction of anachronistic technology suggests that, from a certain perspective, the revelations of science might as well be miracles — or magic.
But The Prestige is more than a twisted mind game. The script, written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, makes sure to cast its leads not only as towering magicians, but also as mere men who struggle to make time for wives, lovers, and families. They can perform amazing, exhilarating acts of magic, yet no such tricks will maintain a relationship or a family.
Bale and Jackman both turn in haunted, captivating performances. Jackman, in his second of three major genre-film roles this year (he appeared as Wolverine in last May’s X-Men sequel and will star in The Fountain this Thanksgiving), shows he can do more that issue feral growls and gruff comic book one-liners. His Angier is heartbroken and tormented, a decent man driven from his nature by violent obsession. Bale is as engaging as ever, playing Borden as a street-smart hothead with a mournful streak. With his squinty eyes and disarming trickster’s confidence, he always seems to be carefully sizing up the situation, yet saddened by what he sees.
Sizing up this movie, some viewers might come away a bit confused. Nolan isn’t always forthcoming with easy answers, but who needs them when the tale is this good? Like a glitzy Vegas magic show, The Prestige will leave you both thrilled and mystified. As Borden says about his art, “The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.” We may not quite know Nolan’s secret, but The Prestige sure is a neat trick.