2006Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson
he Prestige is nothing if not brave. Christopher Nolan’s hefty tale of dueling magicians embraces the cheap thrill of magic tricks (and their cinematic equivalent, the twist ending) with the puzzling admission that their wonder lies in how they are performed and almost never on the actual acts themselves.
I say “almost” because the film suggests one of its magicians creates a “real” magic trick—although if that is the case, wouldn’t it cease to be a trick and become purely supernatural? This is just one of many questions the film finds unfashionable to answer, and therein lies its selling point and its most significant limitation: This is a movie all about the chase, but it never moves beyond provocation. There’s no use in arguing with a film that offers no real logic for its plot—and, frankly, has no use for it—yet how can that outcome satisfy an audience wrapped up in what is essentially a circuitous mystery?
This is not to say the film doesn’t delight in dropping hints, which it does often and with little regard for their actual usefulness. Everywhere and anywhere Nolan has the chance to reveal film’s greater scheme: he even goes so far as to contrive a character’s suicide and a possible execution, both of which become grimly calculated parts of the game. The film models itself against a template that’s been around as long as the movies have, the hall-of-mirrors whodunit, and for the most part, plays safely within its bounds. It rivals the electric appeal of Nolan’s Memento in that it provides instant (and endless) fodder for blog threads in search of a solid explanation for the ending. (There is, of course, no way to work it out fully, which is the appeal.) As long as the aisles are filled with a riveted, bewildered audience—the film alternatively inspires contemplative silence and impassioned conspiracy theories—then it seems Nolan has done his job.
Even in Nolan’s Batman Begins, there were underpinnings of something beyond the typical superhero stock, a greater driving principle, even if it did take a backseat to the cheerful excess that defines the franchise. His big trick here, a risk that ultimately backfires, is an attempt to mold the story into a bona fide drama that can’t possibly sustain the inherent gimmickry of the screenplay (penned by Nolan and his brother Jonathon from Christopher Priest’s 1996 novel).
The story, as it stands, goes something like this: Once upon a time, Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) are magician’s apprentices, who together fill out the supporting roles in a trick that involves dropping Robert’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) in a giant water tank with a fake knot binding her wrists. The carefree early scenes clearly foreshadow some impending doom, and sure enough, one day when Alfred faux-binds Julia’s hands before she is dropped in the tank, she drowns. Alfred can’t remember which knot he tied, Robert is inconsolable, and a lifelong rivalry is born.
The rivalry is really more of a duel, since both men seem content with the possibility of killing each other with any new trick they pull. They rig guns, destroy each other’s professional debuts, kidnap assistants—there’s no limit, just an obsessive desire to destroy the opponent in every conceivable fashion. The moments when they spite each other are the film’s most glowing, their cattish back-and-forth earned in meticulous blocks of narration that carefully set up each magician’s next move.
Bale and Jackman play it straight, which befits the story but sells both performances short. A story this deviously booby-trapped invites a sly grin from its actors, while the deadly seriousness of it all suppresses any mischief and regulates both to a straightforward interpretation of the screenplay. The film’s supporting players, include a requisite sideline turn from Michael Caine (who bookends the story nicely) and another baffling nowhere role for Scarlett Johansson, who once again plays a cloying vamp caught between the two male leads (we need not look back on The Black Dahlia). Who are her agents and why do they have jobs?
Of course, the real central figure here is the story, which crosses continents freely and sends its characters literally through life and death and back again. Things here aren’t entirely grave—thugs working for Thomas Edison turn up at one point, an example of the movie’s bizarre sense of humor—but as the final scheme unfolds and devolves into a would-be poignant finale, it’s dazzling as spectacle but underwhelming as an actual narrative. Still, this is one of the most complex works of cinematic fiction in some time, and it deserves to be embraced as a high-concept alternative thriller for adults, a rare species among modern movies. Nolan will lose no fans here and likely gain some new ones.
The Prestige is playing in theatres across the country.