The Reeler


October 20, 2006

The Prestige

Jackman, Johansson and Bale work their magic in Christopher Nolan's great thriller

At the turn of the 20th century, magic was big business, a crowd-pleasing escape for those who longed to see something impossible, that something more was possible -- those, in other words, who wanted to be fooled. Magic, apparently, is big business this year as well, as on the Cuban heels of this summer's The Illusionist comes Christopher Nolan's crackling psycho-thriller The Prestige (to say nothing of the latest David Blaine meta-magic sideshow). Ironically, it is cinema itself that upstaged the magic trade a century or so ago, when moving images were certainly the neatest trick that side of e=mc2. The impending arrival of that trick, which can still innovate and amaze today, is bound up in each layer of Nolan's manifesto on spectatorship, illusion and the ruthless dedication that greatness demands.

Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) are fledgling London magician apprentices, both hungry for bigger, better, more prestige. Like "the reveal" in cinema and perhaps "the present" in gymnastics, "the prestige" refers to the third act in a magic trick -- the one that includes, say, putting the girl back together again and collecting the glory. Borden's appetite is sharpened by his inner gloomy artist, Angier's by an equally uneasy but outward need for fame and validation. When Angier's lovely assistant wife is killed in an escape maneuver, perhaps owing to Borden's faulty wrist knots, it sparks a spectacular grudge match between the two, which in turn sends the film zig-zagging through time, continents and a whole lotta magic.

Angier becomes fixated on the secret behind Borden's greatest trick, the human transporter, and after combing Nolan's suitably stage-grimey London, heads to Colorado and Nikola Tesla. Acting on a tip found in Borden's journal, Angier believes that Tesla (played by a charmingly obsessive David Bowie) has discovered a way to channel not just energy, but matter, through his seemingly magical electrical currents.

Caught between all of the high-flying testosterone and top hats are huckster stage manager Cutter (Michael Caine, wielding a nearly impenetrable cockney accent) and swinging mistress/turncoat assistant Olivia, played by Scarlett Johansson, who spends most of the movie stalking between her surly lovers in ankle boots and a boob tray. The white gloves having come off along with Borden's fingers (lopped clean by Angier in a sneak attack), the countermaneuvers escalate, often to comic heights, but also elevate each man to greater achievement in their desire to be the best. Just when it seems clear that Borden's obsession could only be satisfied by Angier's death -- life, after all, is the ultimate magic act, hundreds of years of science still haven't sorted it out, and many tricks hinge on outright assaults against it -- the film turns in on itself again, and we're left searching the stage for clues, grow even more anxious for the big prestige.

In this way, The Prestige is a ridiculously, almost uncomfortably engaging film; you can almost hear the sizzle and pop beneath excellent editing, and the humdinger pace and constant switcheroos weave the film's heftier ideas seamlessly into the breathable fabric of a great thriller. The biggest misstep, however, is the Tesla project much of the outcome rests upon; it's as though Nolan is daring viewers to call bullshit on the big finish, which is pitched as more of a stupendous fluke. He's betting you wouldn't dare, of course, that you want to be fooled, and the history of magic -- not to mention the movies -- is on his side.

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