Dear The Prestige,
I feel as though you never really got your fair shot. A tale of two rival 19th century magicians obsessed with besting one another, you were one of two movies that dealt with magicians to come out in a very short period of time. You were the middle child between two Batman films, considered by some to be a placeholder or a palette cleanser for both audience and director between the two ‘true’ film projects. This middle-child status was only exacerbated by the coming of Inception, the larger scale, more heavily hyped movie that came on the coattails of The Dark Knight. It seemed as though you were doomed by fate to become a footnote in the career of a fantastic rising talent, lost in the flurry of bigger, more marketed projects.
This, of course, is a great disservice to you. Of all of your director, Christopher Nolan’s, movies, I find myself coming back to you the most often, because I still find you to be arguably one the most compelling, beautiful, and masterfully crafted films in his oeuvre. In terms of artistic statements, also, you serve as perhaps the purest distillation of Mr. Nolan’s personal philosophy related to moviemaking. All of which ensures you a consistent and unchallenged place in my heart.
Multiple storylines and twist endings have become a staple of most mainstream entertainment in the past few years. However, when the twist, rather than the story, becomes a movie’s centerpiece, any hope for repeated enjoyment or deeper intellectual or creative fulfillment is lost. A quick ‘gotcha’ moment does not fill the void that would have been filled by a thoughtful, well-told story. You seem to know this intrinsically, and to understand that to attempt to fool the audience is folly. One of your characters at one point openly states what seems to be both your and Mr. Nolan’s principle axiom;
The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.
It is the execution of and the context of the mystery and confounding narrative that allows for the greatest pleasure in an audience. Not only that, but the mastery of craft that is employed in the execution of the twist in both story and structure. The trick, in this case, is you in your entirety, The Prestige. You are the trick, the illusion; and your secret is secondary to its service in your evocation of mood and character drama.
Likewise, your shuffled narrative structure would be pointless and even superfluous were it not for the way in which it serves the heightening and intensification of the mood of your story. You begin with a sort of omnipresent voiceover, dip into a second voiceover, which segues into an expository trial scene, which then takes us to a character reading a journal, in which another character begins reading another journal. As matryoshka narrative devices go, you seem to be almost daring people to try and one-up you. You take the idea of nested narrative threads to its extreme, and yet somehow never feel convoluted, busy, cramped, or indecipherable. Like a magician telling a story while waving his hands as a beautiful assistant sashays around him, you revel in the layering of actions, plots and ideas as a means to conceal the secret, distract and entertain to the point that though the truth is before us we refuse to see it.
Much is made in your story about the idea of the final act of a magic trick. A man goes into a box, then disappears, but you don’t applaud until the final act, in which the man returns. The trick has been executed, the impossible suddenly occurs, and now the moment comes for people to wonder at how the illusion was pulled off. However, you don’t really want to know, because you want the wonder to persist.
Fiendishly, you invert this idea as a means of driving the professional rivalry and obsession that forms between these two men. Both men are ultimately undone by looking too hard into the secret that the other uses in the execution of his illusion. The truth is before them, almost cruelly staring them in the face, and yet they are so convinced of the intricacies of their rival’s work and cunning that they never allow themselves to either accept the obvious truth, or allow the secret to remain undiscovered.
Your final moments are packed with so many twists that they once again feel like a challenge, much as your shuffled plot lines do. Through the delicate balance of overwhelming twists and plots, you seem to be drawing attention to the mechanisms behind your story, the superfluous nature of the ‘secrets’ inherent in you. There comes a point where the twist and flashback become so saturated that they no longer hold their mystic power, and simply become another piece of the narrative. It is at this point that you transcend the gimmicky nature of most puzzle-films and enter into a cannon all your own.
Fantastically acted, beautifully shot, meticulously directed and written; all of these things are true. But the heart of your power is truly located in your story, and the seamless blending of theme, plot and narrative. For a movie whose ‘secrets’ are known to me, you still remain a standard of repeat viewing.
Under your spell,
Brian J. Roan