The Prestige is one of those movies with a big final act twist, a plot device about which I have extremely mixed feelings. I love a challenging, surprising story as much as anyone, but I hate when the twist becomes the whole point. If the only question worth pondering in a story is What’s the twist?, that’s not a story worth telling.
The Prestige, however, raises many questions beyond the What?, which is why it doesn’t matter that any observant moviegoer can puzzle out the movie’s secrets before the official revelation. After all, director Christopher Nolan, who cowrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, plays fair, lacing the film with clues, both traditional and figurative, hinting metaphorically at the revelations to come. The Nolan brothers don’t need to make a fetish of the twist, concealing it with falsehoods and pointless distractions, because What? is not nearly so interesting a question as Why? and What next?, even What are the moral implications of the twist? and What might the twist symbolize?. The Nolan brothers know what notorious twist-abuser M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t: A great twist isn’t a gimmick; it’s the heart of the story.
The story here is an extraordinarily intricate one. As the film opens, Victorian-era magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is on trial for murdering his professional rival and nemesis, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman). Flashing back, we see the tragedy that turns mere rivalry into a blood feud. As the feud intensifies, Angier becomes obsessed with learning how Borden performs a trick in which he disappears through one door and reappears instantly on the other side of the stage. That obsession consumes Angier, just as maniacal ambition envelopes Borden.
The screenplay, based on the novel by Christopher Priest, is a work of art, with dark humor, deft characterization, and one perfect motif that becomes more striking and poetic over the course of the movie as its full meaning becomes clear. The Nolans have ignored the temptation to soften their two deeply intriguing but repugnant lead characters, and Bale and Jackman follow their example.
Bale, of course, has a history of portraying unsavory protagonists: He brought Bret Easton Ellis’ American psycho to life, and he has a real talent for simultaneously drawing us in and repelling us. Jackman’s fearlessly unlikable turn is more of a revelation. At one point, Angier takes a page from Cary Grant’s Agent Devlin in Notorious, and Jackman does nothing to romanticize the ugliness of what his character is asking of a woman who loves him. It’s a powerful scene, and it reveals a depth to Jackman’s acting ability that I hadn’t really noticed before.
The title of the movie refers to the third act of a magical illusion, the moment in which the woman who was cut in half is made whole again and the man who had disappeared returns to the stage. But as the story reveals, the “prestige” can be the truly deceptive moment, for some tricks cannot repair what they destroy. Watching the movie, you experience a dawning awareness of what Borden and Angier are willing to sacrifice for the sake of obsession and ambition and vengeance. That slow burn of recognition is deliciously chilling, and it lingers in the mind long after an empty shock would have faded.