Are you watching closely? That is the first line heard in The Prestige as the camera pans along the ground to reveal a sea of identical hats laying on the ground. These two clues can immediately clue you into the magic trick that is about to take place before your eyes. These aren’t the only hints, of course. The Prestige is the type of movie that lays it all out before it just flat out spells out its twist and becomes even more obvious on a second viewing and through deep analysis. There are little details you can continue to find out on subsequent viewings. Each time through brings something new and the best movies can do that for the viewer.
The Prestige was Christopher Nolan’s buffer movie that he put together between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and it is arguably a better movie than either of them. Its narrative is tight and twisty, the performances are great across the board, and the visuals are top-notch in building the atmosphere of the film. With Nolan’s newest twisting head-scratcher, Tenet, hitting theaters, it feels like a good time to look back on one of the sometimes overlooked entries in his filmography.
I first saw The Prestige when I was in college and this was one of two movies released around that time that gave me a new appreciation for films. This movie did something for me. It made me think, long after I left the theater, about the implications of what had happened and the lengths that the characters were willing to go to beat their rivals. I’ve watched it many, many times since and it always brings something new to notice or just to remind me how intricately plotted and designed this movie was to clue the viewer in without giving away the secret.
If you haven’t seen The Prestige, well then go watch it right now because I’m about to spoil the hell out of it. The Prestige can hardly have a deep analysis performed on it without doing so. I’ll be going through the movie and breaking it down using its own rules. The movie, much like any good magic trick, is broken up into three parts. The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige.
The movie starts out by introducing the audience to the steps of any good magic trick. It starts with The Pledge. The Pledge is where a magician shows you something ordinary. This object can be anything and it usually isn’t as ordinary as it seems. Michael Caine’s Cutter then demonstrates a magic trick for a small child, revealed to be Borden’s daughter, and more or less sums up the ending of the movie right at the beginning. One brother will sacrifice their life for the trick, while the other will be reunited with the little girl. That’s the simplest version of events. This is also juxtaposed with Jackman’s Angier performing his New Transported Man. It all comes down to sacrifice. What would you sacrifice for a trick? For fame? For art? What would you sacrifice to be better, to win?
Everything starts out ordinary. There’s even a line narrated by Borden from his diary where he talks about how they were two men at the start of a great career, devoted to an illusion, who never intended to hurt anyone. The audience is initially led to believe he means Angier and himself when it becomes obvious later Borden meant his identical brother and himself. The “devoted to an illusion” line gives it away. Borden and Angier come across this type of devotion again when going to a Chinese magician’s show. They are tasked with finding the secret behind the goldfish bowl trick illusion. A feeble older man makes a goldfish bowl appear, as if from out of thin air. Borden spots it right away because he is already living the same lie. The older magician pretends to be feeble when in public, to deceive people as to how the trick is done. You have to live to trick. You have to sacrifice to make people scratch their heads. Borden describes sacrifice as the only way to escape.
The movie discusses sacrifice often and drives the point home that Borden believes it is a necessity for the craft. The movie shows the Borden brothers, Alfred and Freddy, are each sacrificing half of their lives to live as one and perform the perfect trick. Angier later, in yelling at Olivia, even says “He lives his act. Don’t you see?!” and he has no idea how right he is at that moment. Angier makes sacrifices in his own way as well, but we’ll save that discussion for The Prestige.
These two keep going at each other, driven by a professional rivalry and a personal grudge. Angier blames Borden for his wife’s death and Borden claims ignorance when questioned about which knot he tied. It does seem a bit silly to have Caine’s Cutter swing the ax in the scene where they are trying to rescue Angier’s wife from the water tank when you have Batman and Wolverine standing right there instead. Anyways, this drives Angier even more so than before. He sabotages Borden’s bullet catch trick and Borden loses two fingers in the process. It is ironic that they only time Borden has revealed his trick to anyone, with him revealing the trick to his wife Sarah earlier, that that would be the trick to backfire on him. One could suggest that it subconsciously pushed him further into the veil of secrecy that he had already formed around himself. Borden then sabotages Angier in return and round they go.
The second part described is The Turn, where the magician makes the object do something extraordinary. This isn’t enough though. The audience wants to be fooled.
The Turn for this movie comes when Borden performs his Transported Man trick. It is done with very little lead-up and a character describes it perfectly in saying that it was over so quickly that the audience didn’t have time to absorb it. Despite the briefness of it, Angier describes it as “the most amazing magic trick I’ve ever seen.” This is where rivalry becomes an obsession. This is what drives Angier to do whatever he can to beat Borden at his own game.
Angier then develops his own version of Borden’s trick called The New Transported Man. This is almost an exact copy of how Borden does his trick without Angier even realizing it. Angier employs a double to perform the new trick but whereas Borden’s double is someone he trusts and is as devoted as he is. Angier’s double, Root, is not as dedicated to the art, to say the least. He is an out of work actor and a drunk who drives Angier crazy with his lack of professionalism. The power dynamic between the different sets of doubles is the opposite with Angier’s double even finding out how valuable he is to the trick and the amount of leverage he can wield. Angier also grows weary of having to share the spotlight and spending the prestige of the trick underneath a stage. He grows even more desperate as time goes on and he pushes Olivia, his new assistant/partner, away to go spy on Borden. He puts getting the better of Borden above everything. He has grown to care more about destroying Borden than the memory of his wife or his relationship with Olivia. He even comes close to a boundary he thought he wouldn’t cross. Angier loses Olivia and in turn, is sabotaged by Borden yet again when she turns to hate Angier for sending her away so easily.
In Angier’s desperation, he acts rashly but gains the keyword he needs to decode Borden’s stolen journal. TESLA. The journal has been the guiding tool that Angier has been using to explore Colorado and try to get Nikola Tesla to build him a machine, as he had done for Borden. He travels across an ocean and spends a fortune to try and compete on the same level. Angier eventually gets what he so surely wants, the machine. The initial tests don’t seem to be working, but “exact science is not an exact science.” The moral being you don’t always get what you want or what you intend to happen. Angier has what he wants so why should he look any further? His ambition drives him to go back to London with his new trick, The Real Transported Man.
The final step is to resolve the trick and that final part is called The Prestige.
This is the crux of the trick. The payoff and the resolution. Angier brings his trick to be shown to a magical talent agent. The agent watches the trick and is shocked at what he has just seen. Angier disappears in a flash of electricity and reappears behind him almost instantaneously. Real magic, he calls it. He tells Angier to dress it up a bit so the audience can still see it as an illusion instead of what it truly is. This always was a bit funny to me. While it is magic in the sense of it is not yet possible to instantaneously transport anyone via machine, it almost feels like the agent is calling anything he cannot explain magical, even if it were science.
Angier says he will perform the trick 100 times, no more, no less. We see what happens when the trick is performed successfully. Electricity envelopes Angier, gliding over him as the noise builds, and suddenly he is gone in a flash. A few moments later, he appears in the upper balcony of the theaters. We have also been given a hint of how this trick works. From the fields of hats and Tesla’s experiments, we know that a duplicate hat is transported away and one remains in place. We also know from the beginning of the movie that there is a water tank under the stage during the performance that Borden attends and sneaks backstage for. So is the original Angier transported away or does the original stay in place while a duplicate is created and transported across the theater? This was something that affected me greatly upon my first viewing. I came to realize that either way, the original Angier was dead.
He performs a test of the machine before his demonstration for agent and Cutter. He places a gun next to the machine. Angier activates the machine and the lightning engulfs him. There’s a flash of light and two Angiers are now there. One in the middle of the machine and one transported away. The one in the machine picks up the gun and shoots the other despite his quickly silenced protest. The first time he performs the trick after that, there is a water tank and trap door in place under the machine to dispose of his “prestige material.” If the original is transported or stays in place, it doesn’t matter as he puts it “no one cares about the man in the box.” I had once toyed with the idea that it was random. That it was never a sure thing if the one standing in the machine was transported away or if they stayed in place. A flip of the coin. Drowning is a fear that many folks share and as Cutter puts it later is like “agony.” It is a horrible thing to willingly step into something that is going to kill a version of yourself just for magic or even to set up a trap.
Once Angier tested the machine, he used the performances as a trap, waiting to be sprung when Borden sneaks backstage. Freddy Borden pays the price for his curiosity and is charged with murdering Angier. This was Angier’s game all along. Angier has become a monster in his ambition and desire to beat Borden. Borden learns this just as the audience does. Just as Borden had tricked Angier with a journal meant to throw him off the trail, Angier does the same with Borden. Informing him that he knows he is being charged with his murder, even mocking him seemingly from beyond the grave. Angier, of course, drops the facade to come as rub it in Borden’s face as Lord Caldlow. He has shifted to become the antagonist from the supposed victim and protagonist. We’ve been following his journey more since he has mostly been an open book where we, the audience, were just as in the dark as he was about Borden’s great deception. This change brings out more sympathy for Borden and anger at how callous and deceptive Angier has been not only to everyone else but to us as well.
Once one of the Borden brothers hangs for Angier’s murder that anger is addressed by the other as he shoots Angier. Angier realizes far too late that the simplest solution was right. Alfred replies that it was “simple, not easy.” Half of a full life and that sacrifice was the price of a good trick. Each man was willing to go to different lengths to achieve their goals. All of this is pointless if they don’t bring back the man who disappears. It isn’t enough for the audience and so, just like the trick with the bird at the beginning, Alfred is reunited with his daughter and can live a full life with her.
These two men made sacrifices in all the wrong ways. Borden sacrificed himself and Angier sacrificed others, but Borden isn’t blameless here either. While the Bordens only meant to sacrifice themselves, they put the burden of this life he had chosen on the women they loved. Sarah was so torn between his inconsistent behavior and lifestyles that she hung herself out of grief and depression. Olivia left due to his apathy over Sarah’s death and his ongoing rivalry. The people they brought into their lives didn’t sign up to only be loved and given their attention half of the time. It took all those events for Alfred to admit it would never be enough for them. Angier sacrificed so many folks on his way to his final prestige. He sacrificed Olivia as well and he sacrificed Cutter’s trust. When the man who has been like a father to you through the movie turns on you, you know you’ve crossed a line. His selfishness and singlemindedness were his undoings.
These two men were selfish men reaching for greatness. What is the cost of a great trick?
The brilliance of any great trick is simplicity. The more simple the solution, the more folks will assume it is more complex than that. It has to be for it to make sense to them because the simplest trick sometimes requires the greatest sacrifice.