I figured out the ending of The Prestige about halfway through the movie. I don’t tend to be the brightest guy when it comes to solving cinematic puzzles like this, so this probably means that either the film is incredibly obvious or that it just plays extremely fair, giving real clues and not pulling the rug out from under viewers at the end with a nonsensical twist or reveal.
It’s another puzzle movie from Christopher Nolan, and I think this one is actually more satisfying than Memento, although it lacks that film’s raw sense of discovery. The Prestige is definitely less of an art film than Memento, and there’s no shame in that; in many ways it’s a cousin of Scorsese’s The Departed in that it’s first and foremost an engaging, well-crafted piece of genre entertainment, the kind of movie that Hollywood barely seems to bother with anymore.
At the center of the film are two men trying to destroy one another. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are 19th century London illusionists; when the film begins they are apprenticing together under a lackluster magician (played by obligatory magic movie cameo guy Ricky Jay). Jackman’s wife, the magician’s stage assistant, is drowned doing a standard water tank escape – was it because Bale tied the ropes on her wrist with the wrong knot? Whatever the cause it’s the beginning of a life-long feud that sees the men trying to one-up each other on stage and hurt each other in real life. The stakes keep rising and fingers are lost, limbs are broken, secrets are stolen and crimes against God and nature are committed. The back and forth becomes more than a little Itchy and Scratchy and Houdini.
Objectively speaking they’re both hateful scumbags, stopping at nothing to satiate their petty need for revenge. These two guys are obsessed with each other in a really unpleasant way, so it’s a testament to Nolan and his actors that their story is as compelling as it is. The Prestige is based on a novel, and in literature it’s easier to get away with characters who do continuously loathsome things; we’re inside their heads in a way that we’re not with cinema, and that makes it easier to accept boorish and cruel actions. In The Prestige you’re aware that these guys are behaving exceptionally poorly, but it isn’t until the very end when you really get sick of it – and at that point Nolan has cleverly moved our sympathies to another character who pretty much feels the same way we do.
Of course your mileage may vary when it comes to accepting these characters. Hugh Jackman is, to me, the embodiment of what a movie star should be, all charisma and warmth. His character is the greatest showman in London, so it’s exceptionally fitting casting. Meanwhile Bale is playing a man who is a better magician but not as good at the showbiz aspect. Again, fitting – every film I see Bale in I find him to be more and more difficult to relate to, as if his performances just keep sliding into darker and less friendly territory. At this point I can’t even see the guy smile without reading some kind of sociopathic tendency into it. Also, he has beady weasel eyes.
The two actors bounce off of each other throughout the course of the film, but mostly they anchor their own stories. It turns out that Jackman’s half of the film gets the best supporting players: Michael Caine continues his new career as a sidekick in the role of Jackman’s “engineer,” the guy who builds all his illusions. Ziggy Stardust and King Kong finally team up as David Bowie and Andy Serkis play real-life maverick science genius Nicola Tesla and his man Friday, Mr. Alley. Bowie has a strange mustache and a stranger accent while Serkis is all New Yawk and an occasionally-needed jolt of energy.
There’s another supporting actor who gets notable billing but is completely wasted: Scarlet Johansson is the stage assistant torn between loving both magicians. We know this because she tells us; Nolan doesn’t have much interest in creating an actual romance subplot here. He only seems to care about this character in terms of how she can move the story along and what puzzle pieces she can move into play.
That character is somewhat indicative of how Nolan approaches the film in general. He’s all about keeping things moving, and by the end of the movie you realize how little flab there is – a large amount of the film is setting up events that will pay off at the final solution (of the movie, that is. Not the other, bad final solution). The Prestige looks like it’s set in 19th century London (thanks to the gorgeous set design), but for the most part the setting seems extraneous. The film rarely slows down enough to soak in the atmosphere of the period, which isn’t something you notice on first viewing, but I wonder how it will stack up next time I see The Prestige? There’s a character element to Memento that rewards repeated viewings beyond the “I must find every clue” stage, but The Prestige feels a little more surface than that film. There’s not much depth – and again, there’s nothing wrong with that.
I think I like Christopher Nolan’s puzzle films the best. He’s a real craftsman director, and movies like Memento and The Prestige, movies that need fine, skilled detail work, are perfect for him. I found Insomnia to be weightless, lacking any of the punch of the original, and I think we all know my opinions on Batman Begins. In the press kit The Prestige is called a “cinematic magic trick” (one which we journalists are urged to keep as secret as possible. I have done my best to reveal nothing here), but I don’t think it is. A magic trick fools you. It makes you believe you’re seeing something you’re not. The Prestige doesn’t do that – there’s no sleight of hand here, and there are no cheats. And while I was an hour ahead of the narrative, the woman next to me was completely mystified at the end. The Prestige is definitely the kind of movie that will be the buzz of the office come Monday. But unlike Hugh Jackman’s next film, The Fountain, The Prestige has a definite meaning and solution; it’s the kind of movie that can be gotten.