Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Prestige (2006) A Film by Christopher Nolan

I've awoken myself from my week and a half long post-Satantango trance in a rather contradictory manner: the former film relishes the concrete with masterful minimalism and Christopher Nolan's The Prestige relies heavily on narrative devices and artifice. Nonetheless, Nolan's tale of rivaling magicians in turn-of-the-century London devises an entirely distinct spell that has helped to cease my relentless trips to the blogosphere candy that revolves around Bela Tarr (if only for a month or less). However, I am not attempting to analyze The Prestige's lopsided tricks, but instead to find someone who shares my opinion on the film's confusing blemishes. For a film that is meant to be an odyssey towards the punchline, as much of Nolan's work is (his transfixing Memento is a telling example), the punchline is largely unsatisfying and fishy.

Before I get to such oddness however, I'll summarize the film. Utilizing a hyperlink method, Nolan reveals bits and pieces of the competitive relationship of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Richard Angier (Hugh Jackman). The two ostensibly begin as allies and following the tragic death of Angier's wife at the hands of Borden, they slowly descend into a malicious magician rivalry. Borden's magic is of greater talent but less showmanship, whereas Angier is the man following in the artistic footsteps of Borden's fascinating tricks, namely "The Transforming Man", which involves the apparent transformation of Borden from one box at one side of the stage to another at the other side. Early in Borden's career, Angier makes an appearance at one of his smaller bar performances, acts as a volunteer, and shoots three of Borden's fingers off, so there is bad blood fueling from both sides. Angier's lovely assistant (Scarlett Johansson) becomes fed up with his ambitiously combative ways, and when he sends her on a mission to work with Borden in an attempt to steal his secrets, she takes the opportunity to hop on Borden's train officially.

This stirring drama is stamped with Nolan's endless attempt to extract spectacle from every scene, and surely he has the ability to do so, but his decision to tell a fragmented story is detrimental. The experiment was fruitful in Memento because of the fragmentary nature of the protagonist, but here it feels like a tricky cinematic device with no inherent purpose. I believe I would have loved this film much more had it been told in a linear fashion. Nolan's willingness to challenge the audience is respectable, but the film could have been sharper without such a manipulative ransacking of time. The climax makes use of Hitchcockian thrills with great deftness, suspending vital moments with eerie orchestra sizzles. Wally Pfister's moody cinematography is extremely compelling, exploiting the magnificently designed Victorian sets with mysterious lighting. The Prestige of the film, or what's described as the third act of a magic trick where the twists and turns are revealed, is either so obvious it's dumb, or it's so ridiculous that it must be a puzzling mishap. I don't want to ruin Nolan's signature twist, but let's just say that the film is more interesting during its tenure than during its revelation.


Ed Howard said...

I think this film only works to the extent that it doesn't depend on its "punchline," because as you point out, the denouement is really bizarre and unsatisfying. It's a fascinating mess of a film, where the parts are definitely greater than the whole. Great performances, lots of beautiful images, some thrilling moments... and David Bowie! There's lots to like about it, but Nolan doesn't know how to pull it all together in a convincing way, and if that silly ending is the destination point for everything that went before, it somewhat cheapens the whole story.

That said, I hope Nolan experiments with another personal film like this before heading back for the third Batman flick.

Carson Lund said...

Well said Ed.
You really summarized what I was trying to say about the film. I think that the ending threw me off to the point that I was lost for the proper words.
And about Nolan creating a personal film...this would be fantastic because I do believe he's a compelling director, he just needs to back away from the industry a bit.

Roger Snebert said...

There is absolutely nothing wrong with making genre films. Some of the best movies ever made are genre films. The fact that you people feel like directors need to make "personal films" is an idiotic feeling. Some directors, don't want to do that. They want to tell STORIES that are escapist and fun and interesting.