out of ****
Comparisons between Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige to The Illusionist, this year’s other Victorian magician story, are inevitable, and perhaps even essential. Both deal with magic acts that bask in the art of brilliant, deceptive illusion. Both are also about performers so skilled in their craft that they might actually be blessed beyond the powers of mere chimera. Both also require the viewer, as The Prestige’s opening line insists, to “pay very close attention.”
Yet The Illusionist, an impressive sophomore project by director Neil Burger, is a far simpler exercise, interested in exactly what its title implies: the trick. It is a murder mystery building up to its final twist, which is a good one, and once we realize we have been fooled, the magic is over. Nolan’s film probes deeper, looking beyond the trick itself and into the heart of the magician. It wonders what makes an illusionist tick, and to what inexplicable extremes such men will go to achieve their deceptive performance. Its irony is ultimately in the fact that no matter how closely you pay attention, no matter how carefully you follow the subtleties of the story, you are still going to be fooled. Stay especially observant watching The Illusionist, you’ll figure out what’s happening fairly early on (I did, anyway). Try as you may, The Prestige does not allow the option of realizing final twists prematurely, because these twists so literally come out of nowhere that you would have to read the minds of the characters to know their tactics. The film, we realize, isn’t about the “trick” at all, but rather our helplessness to it, and the obsession that such helplessness casts over both the film’s characters and us.
One more fundamental difference between the films: The Illusionist is set early on in the Spiritualist movement, when people wanted to be fooled into believing in a spiritual world with which we can communicate beyond our own. The Prestige is set in a time much later in the period, when the public has grown weary of self-proclaimed wizards who they now realize are really just tricksters. Illusionists must work overtime to create acts that rivet suspecting audience members, who at this point simply ask that they be given a magic show that will legitimately stump them. The key to such an act? Michael Caine’s character, a veteran magician and mentor to the main characters, boils it down to a simple, essential ingredient: all great magic show involve “prestige.”
A “prestige” is the magician’s definitive punch-line—it is final part of a trick in which the “magic” has already been performed, and the magician works backwards to restore whatever it is that he has altered (no magic trick is complete without reconnecting a woman who has been sawed in half, for example). A good magic trick is secondary to the prestige, because in this final section, the magician reveals his ability to spin a tale beyond his simple performance. Every good magician creates a trick that ends with an impressive prestige; great magicians create illusions centered on the prestige that are so superior that even other magicians are stumped. The prestige therefore becomes a competition between magicians; if they are not careful, they can easily become obsessed with learning their adversary’s advanced tricks.
The film concerns itself with this obsession, focusing on the efforts of two dueling magicians who share a tragic past. For a number of years, and on at least two different continents, the illusionists constantly try to one-up each other as they work to perfect their crafts. They often find themselves in theaters across the street from each other, competing for the same audience. Not surprisingly, they also often contend for the love of the same woman. The two men are played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, in performances that are required to be very controlled in their ability to reveal as little as possible in as many exaggerated interactions as necessary. How much of what they do is really a façade is always difficult to ascertain, especially when they deal with one another and characters directly related to their occupations. Both men have questionable morals and limited capacities to experience life beyond their performances, so also we cannot decisively determine which of them is the protagonist and which is the antagonist. By the end, perhaps both are victims, and both have basically one-upped each other so that it is too complicated to name the winner or estimate the final number of points on their scorecards.
I think the true main character here is finally director Christopher Nolan, who places himself in the middle of this carefully told story and weaves together cinematic tricks that reveal his own prestige. This is his fifth feature film, and all of them deal primarily with men whose tortured pasts force them to live isolated, secretive lives: Following, Momento, Insomnia, and Batman Begins all feature heroes wrestling with their own alter egos, and these characters finally end up mastered by their darkness. The Prestige thus finds Nolan treading in familiar territory, but no other film clearly reveals his seeming obsession with helplessness, because none of the others end with a punch-line that so noticeably mocks of the type of twist-ending that we would expect from such material (which includes his previous films).
Why does this mockery reveal our helplessness? Because it exposes the audience’s predictable expectancy to be shocked, and it plays against that expectation. As I’ve already noted, instead of setting us up with an ending that we anticipate—in which all the clues lead us to a twist that should have been obvious throughout—Nolan gives us resolutions that are so pat that we never see them coming, nor could we. He thus heightens all of the proceeding material by illuminating how the filter of our preconceptions affects our viewing of the film—or any film, for that matter.
Again, let’s consider The Illusionist, in which every scene is a means to an end that leads us forward to the inevitable Big Surprise. We expect a twist, and we get it. The Prestige on the other hand is all build up, all reaction, all double-take, and no Big Surprise. Its petition that we “pay very close attention” is ultimately Nolan’s trick on us: Such a declaration leads us to believe that we are investing in a film that contains a twist ending; instead, the ending reveals a mirror that forces us to look at ourselves as an audience too willing to be manipulated. Of course, we have been manipulated—we have been set up into a final revelation that isn’t a revelation at all, but is instead a very appropriate conclusion that doesn’t so much surprise us as it confirms every single previous development. Nolan brilliantly swindles us by working perpendicularly to his upsurge—he reveals that the skeleton in the closet is really just a skeleton, and not a gambit. In turn, he masterfully discloses how utterly vulnerable we are to cinematic devices—how, in a world in which film has become a type of language, that language can be used to ensnare us by working towards the opposite reaction of how we think it is communicating.
Certainly such swindling reveals the magician’s method and his passion. For the magician, the joy is not in the trick itself, to which he already knows the secrets, but rather in the response from the audience when he pulls it off. Their awe and subsequent praise is the decisive indication of the power of the magician’s prestige. Cinema is today’s primary platform for a great magician, because its viewers know that they are watching illusion, and they thus want to be convinced of its realism even as they understand it is all a series of complex tricks. With The Prestige, Nolan paints how magicians tick, why they do what they do, and the incredible risks that they are willing to put themselves through in order to earn the deafening applause of the spectators. Yet he also puts himself on the line by revealing exactly how magicians like himself manipulate the expectations of the audience, and how the audience can thus be tricked by methods so simple that they never could have expected them in a post-Shyamalan age of elaborate surprises. Nolan does what is unthinkable for magicians: He gives away how his magic works. Is revealing his hand worth it? Nolan certainly thinks so; listen carefully to Jackman’s closing defense, and you will see that the speech is not simply an explanation for his questionable actions, but is also a justification for the entire film.
I realize that this has probably been a frustrating article to read, since I am basically writing in abstracts and focusing almost entirely on the film’s payoff instead of its overall method and structure. I was tempted when sitting down to produce my thoughts on the film to discuss how it accomplishes its extraordinary ideas, but my instinct ultimately resisted such a write-up and instead led me to rest inclusively on Nolan’s final payoff. This is a potentially fatal approach, because I am clearly detailing the film’s secret strategy, and it thus could be argued that I rob Nolan of the raw power of his manipulation. But I am convinced that my vague discussion will not be enough to mar a virgin viewing of The Prestige, nor will it distract from its method, because Nolan’s setup and storytelling are so both flawless that you will eventually forget that he has a tactic, and you will instead be consumed by what is happening around these characters as you try to stay one step ahead of them. The Prestige taps into our subconscious tendency as filmgoers to put puzzle pieces together, and it eventually calls us on our compulsion to outguess a guessing game, even as we probably don’t realize we are doing so. It is a movie for those of us who think we have seen enough movies to always know what to expect. It is, quite simply, a wonderful magician’s trick, because its final point is that there is no trick. Pay very, very close attention.
Christian Bale: Alfred Borden
Hugh Jackman: Rupert Angier
Michael Caine: Cutter
David Bowie: Nikola Tesla
Andy Serkis: Alley
Scarlett Johansson: Olivia Wenscombe
Piper Perabo: Julia
Warner Brothers presents a film by Newark Productions. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, from the book by Christopher Priest. Rated PG-13, for disturbing images and violence. Running time: 128 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: October 20, 2006.