The Prestige (2006 film)

The Prestige is like an irresistible puzzle box, a perfectly executed magic trick.

I've read a lot of reviews of this movie, most of them good. But the few reviewers who disliked it invariably had two complaints: that the movie's narrative structure was too confusing and complicated to follow, or that the plot was too "gimmicky" and not original enough.

The first complaint can be quickly dispatched with. Certainly director Christopher Nolan is no stranger to intricately layered narrative structures built on overlapping scenes from different times and places that have to be reordered and reconstructed in the viewers mind. But any difficulty in following this movie's plot pales in comparison to the difficulty of many other, much more challengingly narrated films, such as Nolan's own Memento. Especially given that the very first words uttered in The Prestige enjoin the viewer to make sure they are "watching closely", and that every new scene very quickly employs some device to indicate which part of the story's timeline it is taking place in, one would have to be very slow-witted indeed to be overly confused. All of which goes to indicate that about twenty percent of American movie reviewers are rather slow-witted.

The second complaint has a bit more merit. The Prestige is certainly a film that relies on plot twists, and since there are only about 27 plot twists in the history of humankind, it is pretty hard to come up with a twist that nobody has ever seen before in some form or another in some other film or book. This film certainly does not. Moreover, the plot twists are deliberately undermined, in that the Nolan brothers have purposely chosen to reveal to the audience enough information to allow someone who actually does "watch closely" to theoretically be able to figure out what all the twists will be before they are revealed.

To me it was precisely this choice that elevated The Prestige beyond the ordinary to the level of an extraordinary film. Because what the Nolan brothers have created is a film that becomes an extended meditation on itself. The parallels between what the characters are doing and saying they are doing in the movie, and how the movie itself is constructed, are amazing, and brilliant, and will have you thinking for days afterwards.

Just to give one example, at one point in the movie Michael Caine's character explains to Hugh Jackman's character that Scarlett Johansson's character is just on stage to distract the audience. By the end of the film, it becomes clear that Scarlett Johansson herself was just in the film to distract the real audience in the same way.

At their core, all magic tricks are about misdirection. By giving the viewers everything they need to figure out what is going on, the Nolan brother's have made a movie that will likewise have to depend on misdirection to succeed, just like the stage magicians whose lives it chronicles. This requires flawless execution, and that is what the Nolan brothers have achieved. The plot is airtight, without a wasted scene in the whole film, the direction is inspired, and every member of the star-studded cast nails their part to perfection. It is easy to imagine that this same exact plot, with a lesser director and/or a less able cast, could have been a complete piece of crap, just like the same exact magic trick can completely flop if performed by a magician with less flair and skill, as the film shows us. Magic tricks are about turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, and that is what this film has done.

Although like The Custodian, I too was able to figure out some aspects of what was really going on, but personally, I was grateful that the Nolans allowed me the chance to play this game of wits with them, unlike a superficially similar but philosophically different movie I saw earlier this year - The Illusionist - in which it was completely impossible to see exactly which of the 27 plot twists was coming because the audience was deliberately denied access to crucial information.

Even if a magic trick is perfectly executed, it should theoretically be possible for a very canny observer who watched closely to be able to figure out what was done. The best magic tricks always walk this fine line: they have to show you enough - almost too much - to give you the feeling that just maybe you know, or think you should know, how it was done. The only real difference between The Prestige and a real-life magic trick is that at the end of a movie, the director is required to let the audience know how the trick was done, whereas a stage magician just walks away and leaves you never quite sure how he did it, but knowing only that you saw something extraordinary.

Are you watching closely? I think you should be, because really that's the whole fun of it.