Ten years ago I thought that Memento was Christopher Nolan’s best picture and that The Prestige was a well-executed gimmick.
My opinion has since flip-flopped. Today I see Memento as a clever but hollow piece of experimentation and The Prestige as a more fully-realized work of art. Its themes are disturbing, but at least they are there.
Well, since then, Nolan has released two Batman films and two prestigious epic spectacles. None have been bad. All have been watchable. But each has left me increasingly unmoved, if not unimpressed. But if those films didn’t confirm my status as a Nolan fanboy, they did convince me that he is an artist with an audacious reach and not simply a showman relying on sleight of hand.
The through-thread in Nolan’s films sure seems to me to be prisons or hells of our own making. Gotham City in the Batman films (particularly The Dark Knight) is a place so miserable there are actually arguments about whether or not it is worth saving. The earth of Interstellar is an environmental death trap that humans have decimated and now seek to leave behind. In Insomnia and Inception, the prisons are more psychological than literal. Among these films, Inception stands out to me because of its seeming countenance of Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) belief that we can find a way back to Eden and not just a way out of hell.
Despite the fact that Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) spends a good portion of The Prestige in a literal prison — one from which he both does and does not escape — it is his and Robert Angier’s (Hugh Jackman) construction of a private, psychological hell that interests me. A lot of movies show people trapped in hell; this one shows them constructing it.
Borden and Angier are dueling magicians, with similar egos but differing attitudes towards risk and reward. When an illusion goes wrong, the lines between professional jealousy and personal animosity get hopelessly blurred. Their attempts to show their rivals up and reveal their rivals for what they are makes for a delicious cat-and-mouse game…at least for awhile. Ultimately, as we see the scars accruing, we wonder if any amount of vindication is worth the price. In one scene, Angier holds Gorden at gunpoint, demanding the latter admit a painful “truth.” The resolution of that scene makes it clear that nothing his rival could say–truthful or not–will appease him. They have passed a point of no return. People who construct prisons too often forget to double check what side of the bars they are on before they throw away the only key.
The best scene in The Prestige is one where Gorden performs a trick involving making a bird disappear before a young boy and his mother. “He killed it!” the boy wails, as mother and illusionist coo at him reassuringly that the magician has god-like powers to resurrect the dead. When Gorden completes the trick, showing a healthy bird to the young boy, the still wailing tyke asks, “But what about his brother?”
If we are quick, we might recognize the film’s own structural bits of misdirection–how it often shows us the answer before we’ve even had a chance to formulate the question. What may take a second viewing to hone in on is the look of delight on Borden’s face. (This is easily my favorite Christian Bale performance.) He is not scared of being exposed, nor is he horrified at having caused the boy distress. “Clever boy” he murmurs, admiringly, without ever breaking character.
There is something admittedly sadistic in the illusionists’ craft; the sooner we admit that the sooner we can grapple with the implications of the film’s incessant claims that we don’t really want to know the secret, that distraction is what separates delicious spectacle from genuine horror.
“Sacrifice, Robert,” Gorden says, “that’s the price of a good trick.” The relish with which he says it, however, makes us wonder whether the sacrifice is truly a price or only a down-payment. Both illusionists sacrifice greatly, both physically and emotionally, in order to win. But if what you are getting is something you value more than what you are giving up, is it truly a sacrifice or is it just an expensive payment?
The Prestige‘s real audaciousness, then, is in its lack of a true audience surrogate. Like The Sopranos, The Shield, and maybe (to a lesser extent) The Godfather, it invites the audience to participate vicariously in a brutal “game” that turns out to not really be a game at all. To the extent we have relished in Gorden’s and Angier’s self- and other-destructive behavior, we can own our complicity and maybe learn a few lessons about how far asea anger and hatred can take us before human voices wake us and we drown.
Or we can just keep smiling, applauding at the shadows of men whose souls disappeared before our eyes, assuming it is all just part of the show.