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Friday, June 15, 2007
Nolan pulls another ace from his sleeve
In Hollywood, many a bright young director arrives thinking he'll make a film or two by their rules, pay the mortgage, and then use his newfound power and prestige to make the films he cares about.
Many a bright young director also goes home with his tail between his legs — just think of how the studios ruined Orson Welles or, for that matter, how Martin Scorsese gets an Oscar for "The Departed," and not "Taxi Driver" or "Goodfellas." Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater (and to some extent Gus Van Sant) are about the only people who've been canny or bipolar enough to make studio flicks and still be able to dive into the deep end on their own projects.
Add British director Christopher Nolan to that shortlist. The director made a name for himself with two smart, suspenseful mysteries, "Following" and "Memento," which featured tricky plots, fractured narratives, and no gratuitous explosions or sword-wielding trolls. Hardly the sort of thing Hollywood laps up; "Following" was even shot in black and white, which is about as popular as the Ebola virus in La-la Land. But "Memento" went on to become a surprise hit, and before you know it, look who's directing "Batman Begins!"
It seemed unlikely Nolan would ever make an interesting (read: nonformulaic) film ever again, but his latest, "The Prestige," is as good as anything he's done, and in exactly the same ways: Smart, suspenseful, and so very sly. Just like with "Memento," you get to the last frame of the film and immediately want to go back to the beginning and watch it all over again. Not because you have to — like the nearly incoherent madness of David Lynch's upcoming "Inland Empire" — but because you'll want to go back and see how Nolan was dangling the secret to his trick in front of your nose the whole time.
"The Prestige" is the cinematic equivalent of sleight of hand, and that's appropriate enough since the film is about two rival magicians in 1890s London. Both Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) start as apprentices to an illusionist whose tricks are designed by Cutter (Michael Caine). The two men become bitter enemies, however, when sloppy work by Borden results in a fatal on-stage accident that kills the magician's assistant, Angier's wife. (And no, she's not sawed in half.)
Both men go on to become talented prestidigitators; Angier, working with Cutter, has the stage presence necessary to achieve success, while Borden, despite striving for ever more impressive illusions, remains second tier. Borden is happily married, though, and that gnaws at Angier, who desires revenge. Thus begins a battle of back and forth with each man trying to wreck the other's show, with often dangerous results, like when Borden tries the "catch a bullet" routine only to find Angier holding a real loaded gun.
"The Prestige" works as suspense, but also as a frightening study of obsession. Both Angier and Borden devote their lives to topping the other guy, to being the best. In one scene, the men watch an old Chinese magician, Ching Ling Soo, get into a cab, so feeble that he's assisted into his seat. "This is the trick," muses Borden, realizing how the magician lives his whole life as a deception, convincing all that he's weak, while using his hidden strength and vigor to work his tricks. When does the performance stop, and where does the real person begin? It's a proposition that bedevils both Borden and Angier throughout the film.
The men's rivalry peaks when Borden develops a trick called The Transported Man: He steps into a doorway on stage, bounces a ball across the stage, closes the door, and reappears from another door in less than a second, in time to catch the ball. Audiences love it, and Angier goes crazy trying to figure it out. Cutter assures him it's got to be something simple, but Angier sends his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to seduce Borden and steal his diary. The information contained therein sends Angier to Colorado to commission a machine from mad inventor Tesla (David Bowie) . . .
This synopsis makes "The Prestige" seem a lot more straight than it actually is; Nolan cuts back and forth between several timelines, showing Borden on death row, supposedly for killing Angier, and several strands leading up to this. Some directors are getting flak for overusing the cross-cutting narrative these days — Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel," for one — but Nolan employs it like any good magician, using misdirection and distraction and the old razzle-dazzle to keep us from seeing the ace up his sleeve. Recommended to anyone who ever enjoyed that classic mind-bender from 1972, "Sleuth," which also featured Michael Caine — at the tender age of 39.