This is my entry for the Things That Don’t Suck Christopher Nolan Blogathon.
A few notes: I am revising this entry on 6/18/10 based on a second viewing of the film. I thought a very long while about whether or not to reveal spoilers to “The Prestige”, because this is a movie where you don’t fully realize what has occurred until well after you’ve stopped watching it. With that said, there will be spoilers.
The Prestige (2006) opens just a few weeks prior to the “present time,” when Angier (Hugh Jackman) falls through a trap door for his magic act, only to find himself land in a water box under the trap door instead of on a mattress. (“Present time” refers to about 1899; Nolan structures the film in flashbacks within flashbacks which roughly correlate to six years ago, three years ago, and “present time”, i.e. approximately 1893-1899.) Angier becomes trapped in the water tank, is locked in, and Borden (Christian Bale) watches as he drowns.
Borden is arrested and convicted of the murder of Angier, mainly due to Angier’s friend and assistant Cutter (Michael Caine) testifying against him. As Borden waits to be hanged, a lawyer shows up with Angier’s diary and a promise of money and safety for his young daughter, but only if he will give up the trick to his teleported man act to a rich gentleman named Lord Cordlow. Later in the film, we find that before he died in the water tank, Angier had gotten Borden’s diary, and it’s through the use of the two men reading each others’ diaries that we slip so easily through time during the telling of this story.
Gorgeous framing in The Prestige, reminiscent of this scene in “2001.”
The Pledge: Six years earlier, Borden and Angier both worked for a magician named Milton and his assistant Cutter. At Cutter’s urging, Angier and Borden see the famous magician Chung Ling Soo‘s act and Borden knows immediately how he does it: By living a life pretending to be old and feeble, Soo can fool people into thinking he couldn’t possibly be lifting heavy props under his robes. His life is the act. You think Borden is going to start “living the act” at that moment, only because you don’t yet realize that he already is.
Angier, it’s revealed, is actually a rich man who is working under an alias to protect his family from the bad reputation his life as a stage magician would saddle them with. Bryce said earlier this week during the Blogathon that director Nolan “plays fair” with the information given in the film, and this is a great example of that: We are straight up told Angier is living an act very early in the film. If we as an audience don’t realize the implications of that, it’s only through our own denial.
On re-watch and with Bryce’s comment in mind, I realized just how much Nolan shows us in this film that we choose to believe or not. He plays with all manner of preconceived notions: Notions of what sacrifice means, what magic is, and even what movies are. The audience approaches the movie with specific tropes already dancing through their heads; they go into the film thinking this is a contest between two rivals, that one will be good and one will be bad, that the poor man making sacrifices to get out of poverty is automatically good and just. The use of visual cues that are reminiscent of other films like 2001, as I mentioned above, or the hats in the field which is straight out of Miller’s Crossing (hat tip — yes, a pun — to my husband for pointing that one out) is part of Nolan’s so-called trick.
And that’s what all this is, really: a trick. You make the audience decide for itself, consciously or not, whether it’s going to see the truth or the trick, which means the audience reaction is part of the movie itself. This isn’t new, as Edgar Allan Poe or Orson Welles could tell you, but it has been so long since I’ve encountered a film (or literature) where my reaction was such a large part of the art that I didn’t even recognize it until much later.
During the time Border and Angier work together, Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) is the magician’s lovely assistant, featured in a trick where she is bound and thrown into a locked water tank. One night she can’t get loose from the knot and drowns on stage. Angier never forgives Borden for what he’s done, sure that Borden used his own style of knot and thus prevented Julia, unfamiliar with Borden’s technique, from being able to get free. There is a bit of bait-and-switch here, where we are lead to believe Borden used the knot he preferred for the act that night, but at the end of the film we realize Borden fumbled the knot because he didn’t know what he was doing. More on that later.
The Turn: Months pass. Borden meets and marries Sarah (Rebecca Hall), hooks up with his mysterious and mostly-silent right hand man Fallon, and starts his own magic show. The show includes a bullet catch trick; Angier, disguised, poses as a volunteer to shoot Borden in the trick, but sneaks a real bullet into the gun. He doesn’t kill Borden thanks to Fallon’s intervention, but he does ruin Borden’s left hand. This begins a series of each man’s tricks being sabotaged by his rival during the act’s prestige, back and forth over the years.
Every time you think Borden wins over Angier, Angier turns around and defeats Borden. Both men are obsessed with being the best at their craft and with exacting revenge, although it becomes clear that, as time moves on, they have forgotten the reasons for revenge in the first place. And everything hinges on a transporting man trick, one that Borden achieves without the use of a double. Angier through epic denial — mimicking the denial we as an audience are experiencing but don’t yet realize — is sent on an expensive wild goose chase to Colorado Springs and Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). Despite discovering this was another trick of Borden’s to lead him astray, Angier is not defeated: Tesla actually creates a machine which duplicates what is placed inside and sends the duplicate several yards away. It is, essentially, a transporter, one Angier uses in his fabulous new act that steals the audience away from Borden’s own act.
The Prestige: The arrival of Tesla’s machine is when I discovered what I thought was the trick ending. I already figured Angier wasn’t really dead and that Angier would win by turning up alive after Borden hanged for his murder. But I underestimated Angier’s willingness to sacrifice.
Angier had used Tesla’s machine during his limited 100-performance engagement magic act, an act that was a huge hit. Tesla’s machine was therefore used 100 times to create duplicates, doubles for the act. Each night, Angier walked into the machine without knowing whether he would be teleported nearby or dropped through the trap door. Each night, instead of a mattress or cushion, he had a locking water tank under the trap door to drown either himself or his duplicate so that the secret of the act would not be revealed.
Let me repeat that: Each night for 100 nights, he drowned in a water tank just as his wife had drowned six years earlier. All for revenge but, quite clearly, also in an act of despondent self punishment. That last night, he knew Borden would be there, and knew when he/his duplicate in the tank drowned, Borden would be convicted of his murder.
And Borden does indeed hang for the murder, but still is very much alive and kills Angier after he hangs. How? The secret of his own transported man trick was that he had, for years, been living the act: He had a twin brother. The twins would alternate between being Borden or pretending to be the assistant Fallon. They shared everything, including the wife, ultimately driving her to suicide. Borden notes that one twin loved his mistress and disliked Sarah, his wife, explaining why sometimes we saw Borden yelling at her for no reason and not meaning it when he told her he loved her. Also, in flashbacks we see one angry twin yelling at Fallon to figure out Angier’s act; clearly, the twin who loved Olivia was the twin who didn’t know magic that well, which explains why he flubbed Julia’s knot.
Through flashbacks and dialogue we also discover this twin is the brother who didn’t like Sarah, and who went on his own to find out what Angier’s act was despite the other, calmer brother telling him to let it go. As Vanwall correctly pointed out in comments below, he’s the one who should have died because of what he had done. But think about what he didn’t do: We know he grew up in poverty in a workhouse, yet just to keep the act going his other twin kept dressing as Fallon and let his little daughter go into the poorhouse. He could have stopped it but he didn’t. And he has the gall to say he sacrificed? No. His girl did, his wife did, even his girlfriend did. Until one twin hangs, neither Borden brother sacrificed.
The audience is tricked by Nolan through preconceived notions because we so often identify with the actor, not the character. Bale and Jackman are hugely famous and that is a big part of this illusion, as it means when the audience sees one actor, Christian Bale, leaving the movie alive, and we think he won. Even I on the first viewing saw this in terms of who won and who lost, yet neither lost nor won. Borden reappears at the end in what is a real-life prestige, but the very last scene before the film cuts to black is Angier reappearing, too. Sure, he’s floating dead in a water tank, but that doesn’t matter: He still reappears. Nolan turns the repeated phrase “No one cares about the man in the box” on its head, because the prestige in Angier’s case is being the man in the box.
And here we end, with most of the audience thinking this is a happy ending. Cutter smiling sagely, father arriving to rescue the girl, sunshine streaming through the windows and cute little birds entertaining a happy girl. The girl is delighted because she sees only the trick, not the truth, and the audience is just as delighted as her because the trick is more pleasant than the truth. As Bryce quoted from Roger Ebert, Caine seems wiser then everybody else in a film just by appearing on screen, and using an actor with such a presence plays to the preconceived notion. Cutter was happily willing to bury a man alive and kill birds in a cage before and after the incident. How wise and righteous can he actually be? Further, those cute birds are soon to be crushed in a cage, and one bird surely is crushed to entertain that little girl; the man who takes the girl may have been the one married to her mother, but what we know of the swapping implies he may not actually be her father, and he is the same man who chose to stay dressed as Fallon instead of rescuing her from the workhouse.
Abracadabra: A happy ending.