Movie Rewind: “The Prestige” (2006)

One of our newest columns here at Reel Reactions is “Movie Rewind”, and so far we’ve rewound the clock only by a few months, having posted reviews for Amour, Moonrise Kingdom, and Beasts of the Southern Wild in preparation for the 85th Academy Awards that took place on Sunday, February 24th. The purpose of this new column is to look back and review older movies – some of our favorites even – when we see them worthy of a comparison, no matter how thin, to a movie that is going to be released or a topic that has made its way into public discussion. This weekend, Steve Carell and Jim Carrey play rival magicians in the comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, and as a result we want to take a look back at another, very different kind of film that is also about rivaling magicians, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Pick up the remote, click the double arrow, it’s time for a Movie Rewind: The Prestige

Think back for a moment to the mid 2000s, more specifically 2006, where the biggest movies of the year were directed by Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Spike Lee, Mel Gibson, Alfonso Cuaron, and Guillermo Del Toro. Rian Johnson, Jason Reitman, and J.J. Abrams made their directorial debuts. Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest was a swashbuckling, record-breaking moneymaker. Superman returned. Daniel Craig exploded to the A-list when he replaced Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Casino Royale. Two movies were made about the 9/11 terrorist attacks: United 93 and World Trade Center. Will Smith showed that he could handle drama in The Pursuit of Happyness. A comedy – Little Miss Sunshine – was nominated for Best Picture. Dreamgirls was the huge movie musical of the moment. Sacha Baron Cohen reinvented cinematic crudity with his big srceen version of Borat, and Ryan Gosling went from being “that great looking guy in The Notebook” to an Oscar-nominated actor with his wowing turn in Half Nelson. If memory serves…it was a pretty loaded year at the movies. There was also a little ensemble movie wedged into the back half of October that was directed by one of today’s biggest filmmakers, Christopher Nolan.

Starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale – coming off his previous Nolan collaboration, Batman Begins – Nolan’s film, The Prestige, told a twisting tale about two magicians who went from friends to warring enemies, attempting to mine out the secrets to one another’s best tricks until one of them performs the ultimate illusion. Amidst the commotion of 2006, The Prestige fell onto the backburner, grossing little over $50 million at the domestic box office and not being warmly embraced by critics. Reviewers found the movie cold, convoluted, conflicting, and unconvincing. However, the critics that fell on the opposite end thought it was a smart, compelling, wildly unexpected and thrilling movie full of twists and turns, one that manages to be just as big of an illusion as the one that the film centers around. It is with these critics that I, myself, agree with.

The Prestige is a movie of daring proportions with a tight, well-written script that weaves in and out of its linear progression and delves right into the psychological deterioration of its two main characters. Oscar nominated art direction paired with lavish period costuming and icy cinematography – from Nolan-regular Wally Pfister, who was nominated for an Oscar here and won years later for Nolan’s Inception – give the film a chilling atmosphere and a nearly satanic drive that parallels the obsessive attitudes of these two magicians. Technically, the film has the makings of a classic and while it took many a few revisits to realize the brilliant craftsmanship, I remember being sucked in on viewing number one. I saw the movie opening day in theaters and was blown away by the numerous rug-pulls this movie had, I was warped by its misdirection, and then slapped myself on the forehead when I saw it a second time and saw how nicely placed the subtleties are that reward any intellectual viewer. It’s a showcase of heavy involvement from Mr. Nolan, who co-wrote the feature with his screenwriter brother, Jonathan, in addition to directing the piece, and it’s only elevated by the impressive performances put in by its six leads.

The beautiful Scarlet Johannsen is an object of lust and another personified instrument of division between Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier and Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden. In one of his only live action performances, Andy Serkis perfectly fits the nippy atmosphere, but he’s mostly overshadowed in the scenes he shares with the character of Nikola Tesla, who’s masterfully portrayed by a nearly unrecognizable David Bowie. While Bowie had always dipped into acting throughout his seemingly never-ending music career, The Prestige provided him with something different. He wasn’t utilized as a gimmick like in Zoolander or his cult classic, Labyrinth. Here, Tesla plays a pivotal role and I remember being mesmerized by his subtle, yet looming presence on screen and I was jaw-dropped to see David Bowie’s name listed aside the character of Tesla in the ending credits. Michael Caine, who has also become a staple of Nolan’s later films, gives one of his best performances ever as Mr. Cutter, the all-seeing and all-knowing elderly sage of magical tricks. Though he employs some heavy Morgan Freeman-like narration, he’s one of The Prestige’s best parts. As for the leads, Christian Bale’s Borden possesses a smarm of villainy and while he’s most recognized now for playing Batman and his Oscar-winning role in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, I pray that his performance in The Prestige resurfaces as one of his best in the years to come. The best performance in the entire film, however, comes from Mr. Hugh Jackman, who at this point had done little else aside from the X-Men films. Jackman’s tortured Robert Angier is the ultimate obsessor and he goes through quite the ordeal and sacrifices the most over the course of the film’s 130 minutes. Come the film’s end – where your jaw just comes crashing to the floor – he delivers a shining and emotional monologue about his loss and how desperately he was seeking revenge for so long. It’s quite moving.

A number of things have changed since The Prestige’s release in 2006. Christopher Nolan’s follow-up was The Dark Knight – very little has to be said about this film – and then Inception and The Dark Knight Rises came tumbling after in 2010 and 2012. Bale has continued to amaze in nearly ever feature in the interim – even though his early roles in American Psycho and The Machinist rank amongst my two favorites – and Jackman was nominated for Best Actor this year after starring in Tom Hooper’s musical adaptation of Broadway’s Les Misérables. They’ve all got highly anticipated works on the horizon – Man of Steel, Prisoners, American Bullshit – but The Prestige will forever be one of the most enthralling movies I’ve ever seen in the theaters. I’ve viewed it multiple times since and on each viewing I pick up more nuances and another cleverly placed subtlety. Like Nolan’s breakout, Memento, my final opinion on what actually happened over the course of film changes on almost every viewing and movies that make you think so long and hard about what transpires are some of the most rewarding, in my opinion (I’ll be saying the same thing about Danny Boyle’s Trance when my review drops in the next few weeks).

If you have missed out on Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, I urge you to seek it out immediately. It’s a wondrous, triumphant, and way smarter than most of the films that come out now and have come out in the time since. The beauty of it is magical – pun intended.

Article by Mike Murphy

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