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Christopher Nolan’s Sleight of Hand

The ‘Dunkirk’ director has dedicated his professional life to spectacles, but his 2006 film ‘The Prestige’ is the only movie he’s made about the dark compulsion to produce such awe-inspiring works

(Touchstone Pictures/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration)
(Touchstone Pictures/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration)

"Nothing is impossible," says the scientist to his deep-pocketed patron. "What you want is simply expensive." Of all the deliciously cynical lines in The Prestige — a film that doesn’t lack for diabolically quotable dialogue — this stray observation resonates the most, and not only because it’s delivered by the man who sold the world.

The casting of David Bowie as the legendary Serbian American inventor Nikola Tesla is conceptually clever: a case of asking one visionary enigma to play another. It’s also the sort of thing a filmmaker does when he or she has artistic carte blanche and unlimited resources at their disposal — when the producer tells them that anything is possible.

The Prestige came out 11 years ago, when Christopher Nolan was still in the process of earning the same blank-check largesse as the film’s callow antihero, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), who tells Tesla "that money is not an object." In 2017, Nolan has about as much freedom as any commercial film director in the world. His position is unique, somewhere between franchise guy and critical darling — a cerebral populist who has shifted the mainstream toward his sensibility instead of getting dragged toward the middle ground.

Because he staked Warner Bros. to one of its biggest tentpoles this century, he commands the sorts of budgets that generational peers like Paul Thomas Anderson and even David Fincher couldn’t dream of, even for non–DC Universe projects. For instance, for his new World War II drama Dunkirk, Nolan spent $5 million on a vintage German plane; wrangled Harry Styles to star alongside Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance (sparking concern that the pop star would be the first of the gang to die); and, in an era when digital projection is pretty much compulsory for all blockbusters, the film is slated to open in old-school 70 millimeter in 125 theaters (25 more than fellow anti-video crusader Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight).

Back in 1998, when he living in the U.K., Nolan spent £10,000 of his own funds on Following, a tiny black-and-white thriller shot with borrowed equipment and featuring actors whose availability was subject to their day jobs.

One key supporting role was filled by the director’s uncle John, a ’70s television veteran who was one of the only professionals in the cast; less than 10 years later, the director had Michael Caine on speed dial. The narrative of the freelance crack shots turned Hollywood hired guns was strong in the late ’90s, and Nolan’s ascendant arc was similar to that of Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and other indie directors who’ve mastered the ratio of bang-to-buck (except that in his case, the paying-his-dues thing wasn’t a metaphor).

The mix of skill, grift, and thrift in Following, which was shot in increments of 15 minutes of footage per week, made Nolan seem like a good investment and enabled his move from shoestring indies to studio assignments like Insomnia and Batman Begins. Even more than Raimi’s first two Spider-Man entries, Begins opened up the playing field for Auteur Event Movies, which has since grown considerably more crowded. On this timeline, it’s possible to see The Prestige as the turning point in Nolan’s career — as his transition from apprentice to sorcerer. Or, as David Ehrlich wrote in a recent feature for Indiewire: "A lot of Nolan’s movies feel like the work of a magician … [but] The Prestige is the only one that feels like the work of a wizard."

The separation of simple sleight of hand from actual miracle-working is at the heart of The Prestige, which was freely adapted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (their first official screenplay collaboration) from Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel about the increasingly violent rivalry between two stage magicians in 19th-century London. In the book, milquetoast illusionist Robert Angier (named Rupert in the book) and hardscrabble close-up-magic specialist Alfred Borden first clash during a fraudulent séance; the movie version ups the stakes by having Borden (Christian Bale) accidentally cause the death of Angier’s fiancée during a botched Houdiniesque stunt. In this nightmarish sequence, Nolan establishes a theme of claustrophobia that runs through the movie: Nearly every one of the script’s twists pivots on the characters’ fears of being locked into something they can’t get free from. There is no escapist entertainment in The Prestige — every routine is a trap.

In a sense, almost all of Nolan’s movies are about men who become prisoners of their own devices. Memento’s amnesiac protagonist lives in a vicious loop that he’s set in motion; Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream warrior in Inception ultimately can’t bring himself to wake up; the laconic astronaut in Interstellar (played by Matthew McConaughey) worms his way inside a tesseract and learns that time is a flat circle. In The Prestige, the to-the-manor-born Angier and working-class hustler Borden each adopt flamboyantly reductive stage personae: The former cloaks himself in gentility as "The Great Danton," while the latter calls himself "The Professor," a mysterious master craftsman.

These alter egos make sense really only in opposition to each other (a motif that also figures in The Dark Knight, with its Jerry Maguire–quoting interrogation scene). It’s this same contrast that makes the film so fascinatingly self-reflexive. The grueling battle of wills between the glib parlor trickster and the grim perfectionist — each of whom resents and envies the other in equal measure — encompasses both halves of the filmmaker’s sensibility and turns The Prestige into an interestingly ambivalent directorial self-portrait.

Even as The Prestige looks inward, however, it expands outward. The Nolans honor Priest’s conceit of using a real-life technological revolution to contextualize the stage craft. If the film fudges and fictionalizes details of the so-called "War of the Currents" — the oedipally charged conflict between direct-current pioneer Thomas Edison and his protégé turned usurper Tesla, who advocated for the more efficient and far-reaching alternating-current system — it ably captures the mix of optimism and apocalyptic anxiety surrounding turn-of-the-century scientific progress. "Society only tolerates one change at a time," says Tesla, whose depiction by the Nolans as a high-voltage Merlin (he gets a rock star introduction, cruising through a fury of electrical static) is both beautifully stylized and in keeping with his legacy as a man both out of and ahead of his time.

It’s telling that Bowie’s Tesla has all his scenes with Angier, who prefers gimmicks to physical exertion and is drawn to the flash and dazzle of special effects. He wants the inventor to build him a machine to replicate Borden’s most amazing and inexplicable trick, in which the magician seems to transport himself across the stage; he dreams of full houses while his rival languishes in irrelevance. Tesla famously struggled with funding in his later years, and his caustic crack about the cost of such a proposition is subtly doubled-edged. In a movie obsessed with body doubles and doppelgängers — and which gives both of its stars dual roles, one of which is more immediately apparent than the other — Tesla’s warning about the price of doing business refers to spiritual as well as financial currency.

This commitment to an unforgiving worldview may be why, for all its lovingly deluxe period textures, starry casting (including Scarlett Johansson in a borderline-thankless part as an assistant who becomes a duplicitous go-between), and relentless sense of narrative propulsion, The Prestige isn’t conventionally fun. Not that crowd-pleasing is necessarily its creator’s stock-in-trade. Of all the brand-name auteurs of the early 21st century, Nolan may be the most congenitally morose. One reason that I’ve never been able to make sense of the whole Man Who Would Be Kubrick thing, which has haunted the release of each new Nolan movie, is that the designation would require its recipient to have a sense of humor.

Nolan comes by his gloominess naturally, and the existential angst is pretty fetching in Following and especially Memento, which has the compression and focus of a great paperback crime thriller, à la Jim Thompson (a Kubrick collaborator, by the way). The question, at least since his call-up to the big leagues, is what does that po-faced existentialism look like on a blockbuster budget? Much of the critical praise for The Dark Knight was tied to its systematic rejection of comic-book exhilaration — the way it traded in Tim Burton’s playful Gothic expressionism for gritty, Michael Mann–erist urban realism.

But there’s also a case to be made against their contributions to our drabber-than-ever pop cultural palette, and that the what-is-dream-what-is-reality-gamesmanship of Inception was exhausting. (It didn’t help that Leonardo DiCaprio gave exactly the same performance in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, released the same year.)

If the rap against Nolan is that he’s too serious for his own good, The Prestige could easily be called as a witness for the prosecution. Its protagonists are both miserable, self-sabotaging assholes who go out of their way to mutilate and maim each other; its final reversal is jaw-droppingly bleak; it’s a textbook example of Nolan’s much-debated Dead Woman Problem (which won’t be a problem with Dunkirk’s seemingly all-male main cast). But if there’s a difference between movies that investigate melancholy and those that wallow in it for its own sake, The Prestige earns the benefit of the doubt.

At a moment when his practice had rerouted irrevocably away from its humble origins, Nolan made a movie about entertainers so desperate to please that they end up bitter and obsessed; cloaked in the disguise of a lavish science-fiction thriller, he successfully dramatizes the compromises that go with chasing popular success. It’s probably a compliment to the thorniness of the final product that the film made less money than any of his post-Insomnia projects. Whatever you think of the film’s big, hidden-in-plain-sight twist — probably the Nolans’ most ambitious gambit since it involves a character not present in the book — the sheer intricacy of its overall construction is undeniable. And even if you see the punch line coming (or have seen the film before), there’s something genuinely unsettling about the final shot, which suggests the self-annihilating side of entertainment — show business as a series of little deaths, one after the other, stretching into eternity (it takes some stones to visually quote Citizen Kane at the end of your movie).

The only thing that’s truly impossible in The Prestige’s universe is the sense of fulfillment that’s supposed to come with pulling off the perfect illusion. Angier’s admission that he got into magic just to see the looks on the faces of the people he fooled is rendered devastating in the context of his own final, frozen facial expression. If The Prestige really is its creator’s best film, that’s because it’s a masterpiece of disenchantment.