Moriarty Conjures Up AICN’s First Review Of THE PRESTIGE!!
Published at: Oct. 15, 2006, 8:27 p.m. CST by Moriarty
There’s almost no way to discuss this film without getting into spoilers.
But I’m going to do my best. And if I feel like I have to discuss something spoilery to make a point, I will give you ample warning. I don’t want to ruin this film for even one potential viewer.
Because part of the reason I enjoyed THE PRESTIGE so much is the absolute lack of knowledge I had about the film. As it unfolded, I was absolutely without a map. Because THE PRESTIGE doesn’t really resemble any other film at first glance, and because I’d be hard-pressed to pin it down to any specific genre, it feels as you’re watching like anything can happen. And indeed... anything can. There are fantastic, remarkable things that happen in this film, some illusion, some magic, some simply a matter of perspective. THE PRESTIGE is, from its first frame to the last, a magic trick designed to confound at first, but hopefully to delight upon closer inspection.
The film takes place just before the dawn of the 20th century. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman, on a roll this year) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are both apprenticed to an older magician, both of them determined to one day make their own mark in the world of magic. Cutter (Michael Caine) is the ingeneur, the man who stands behind the magician, building him the devices he needs to pull off the illusions he envisions. Cutter recognizes raw potential in both Angier and Borden. It’s obvious that Angier is the showman, the performer who is perfectly at home on a stage, while Borden is the genius who has trouble connecting with the crowd. He’s the one who seems capable of real magic from the very start.
There’s a tragic accident that drives a wedge between Angier and Borden, though, leaving both men broken in different ways. Piper Perabo plays the woman who haunts them both, and it’s a nice small role for her. Both Angier and Borden begin to seriously persue their dreams of fame and glory, and they also set out to destroy each other. It’s not enough to succeed for either of them unless the other fails. That’s enough drama to drive a film, but this is a movie by Christopher Nolan. It’s not that easy.
In a way, this is the first film since MEMENTO where I sense the personal stamp of Chris Nolan in full effect. I know this is adapted from a novel by Christopher Priest (which I haven’t read, but which I will now that I’ve seen and enjoyed the film), but the script by Chris and Jon Nolan is an exceptional exercise in film writing. They use every single tool at their disposal to play their game on the audience. And I’m not talking about something as simple as a twist ending. We’ve all seen twist endings before. This film is built to fold in on itself, daring you to pin it down. In pulling off this cinematic magic trick, there are things that Nolan has hidden in plain view, and one of the big delights of the film for me was the moment where I connected the dots a little bit before the film revealed itself, and I sat watching how Nolan was practically taunting you, daring you to catch him at his little game. It’s playful, powerful filmmaking, and Nolan gets great work from all of his collaborators here, whether the actors or the camera department or editorial. Wally Pfister was Oscar-nominated for BATMAN BEGINS, an incredible feat considering how little love is typically shown to superhero fare. Pfister’s work here is energetic, alive, anything but the way I’m used to seeing period films look. This feels contemporary. There’s a pulse to this that will make you forget that this supposedly took place over a hundred years ago. This feels like right now. I love stories where real-life figures are woven into the fabric of the piece in fictional ways. Nikola Tesla, played here by David Bowie in an otherworldly turn, pushes the film into the real of steampunk, and he plays this Electrical Age Wizard with a cold efficiency that you don’t get from your typical fantasy archetype. Tesla is at the heart of the film’s biggest mystery, and I suspect the nature of the machines he builds for both Borden and Angier will cause the most controversy of any plot element from the film. I’ve talked to three people who have seen the movie, and none of them agree on what they saw. None of them agree on what happens in the end of the film. None of them agree on how certain pieces fit together, or even what those pieces are.
And I love that. I think I have the film figured out, but I’m not sure. I know what I think the final shot says to me, and I think it’s terrifying, cold-blooded and awful. But because of how it’s put together, I can’t be sure that my interpretation is right. What a kick.
I think some critics will brush this one off as a genre exercise, but I think this is a film about faith and the drive to create art and about the price we pay for the things we want most in life. I think THE PRESTIGE is a great human epic about two flawed characters who, were they to ever pool their efforts, could probably dominate the magic world. Instead, because they turn their attentions toward mutual destruction, neither one of them is able to become the magician they are capable of becoming.
Worse, neither one of them becomes the man they are capable of becoming, and that’s the real tragedy of the film. By becoming consumed with anger and jealousy and revenge, both of these men are destroyed. Borden’s a great character, and Bale takes visible pleasure playing all the layers of Borden and his many faces, and I find myself rooting for him in the film although he’s ostensibly cast as the villain. Angier, on the other hand, begins as the wronged man, the hero in need of revenge, and he is gradually corrupted to such a degree that it’s impossible to side with him any further. It’s a beautiful sort of teeter-totter of empathy that the Nolans ride with their screenplay, and I think it’s one of the best structured things I’ve seen all year. I want to see the film again because I want to look at the first half, and I want to see all the visual clues that Nolan lays out from the very first image, where you see a forest floor cluttered with top hats and rabbits. Iconography that is instantly recognizable as stage magic, but in an incongruous setting. Is it just a stylistic choice, or is this a key to what we’re about to see? Could Nolan be giving you a huge piece of the puzzle right up front, confident that you don’t know what it is you’re looking at, so you won’t get ahead of the trick.
I want to make a comment that might be interpreted as extra-spoilery, although I’m really only going to talk about theme and not plot. Still, if you’re hypersensitive (and you might want to be on a film this cool), then skip to the next paragraph now. For me, this film makes a fascinating double-feature with THE DEPARTED, both of them films about duality and mirrored personalities and deception and the toll it takes when it is over a genuine span of time. One of the characters in THE PRESTIGE makes a sacrifice for the sake of their art that is incalculable, but that’s sort of the point.
How far would you go to create something new? In any art, that’s not easy. In film, in prose, in poetry or music, in painting or sculpture or photography... it seems like there is very little that is “new.” But the notion that we might be the one who somehow comes up with that thing that turns an art form on its head... that is what keeps many people at it, pushing themselves, pushing their art in any number of directions. Sometimes, that drive to do something special can lead to work that seems to exist in a moral vacuum, work that is about innovation but that doesn’t care at what cost. A real artist will follow their muse to hell and back because they have no choice, and both Borden and Angier pay dearly for their signature tricks in this film, although neither of them pays in the way that the other thinks they do.
Scarlett Johansson is extra-yummy in period corsets and tight-fitting clothes, and she makes the most of her admittedly-brief screen time. Andy Serkis makes a strong impression as Tesla’s assistant, Alley. Nolan’s longtime collaborators Nathan Crowley (production design), Lee Smith (editing), and David Julyan (score) all do exceptional work here, and it’s like they all tuned in perfectly to what Nolan is trying to do. Everything’s in service of the trick.
I think THE PRESTIGE is a painfully sad film, and I think is a dense and complicated film that not everyone will appreciate, especially if they just see it once and then shut down. But what I like about this and about MEMENTO is that Nolan wants to make films that not only withstand repeat viewings, but that actually demand them. He’s becoming a dazzling mainstream artist, and he’s not repeating himself over and over to do it. Nolan has a distinct voice in mega-budget filmmaking, and I hope he’s in it for the long haul. Right now, there’s no one else like him, and we’re richer for it. I can’t wait for next Friday so the heated arguments about this one can begin.
I’ve got still more stuff coming today, but first, a few hours rest on my end.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles