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What is it with Christopher Nolan and his endings? The celebrated director frequently drops a dénouement that forces the audience to continue the conversation long after the lights have come up and the crowd has shuffled into the parking lot. What did Alfred (Michael Caine) really see in that Italian café at the end of The Dark Knight Rises? What does the spinning top mean at the conclusion of Inception? Where was Matthew McConaughey going as Interstellar wrapped? And seriously, what the hell happened at the end of The Prestige?
Nolan's 2006 standoff between rival magicians, The Prestige, is the film I widely consider his masterpiece -- and revisiting it again for the benefit of this column did nothing to sway that opinion. Nolan loves creating intricate screenplays with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, and we usually don't have the complete story until the final piece of the story has clicked into place. It's not surprising that the ending to The Prestige is still frequently discussed on message boards and in chat rooms nearly a decade after the film's release. The conclusion seems fairly cut-and-dried. But is it? Let's dig in to The Prestige and try to unlock its many secrets!
Obviously, this feature will reveal multiple spoilers about The Prestige. You have been warned!
What Happens At The End
The Prestige follows a rivalry waged between one-time partners and stage illusionists Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The death of Angier's wife (Piper Perabo) during an earlier trick drove a wedge between the two men. Since, they have been playing a dangerous game of one-upmanship, and it's finally leading to their demise. As the movie concludes, Borden is on trial for Angier's murder. The magician snuck below the stage one night to see how Angier pulls off the latest iteration of The Disappearing Man. Only, Angier ends up in a tank of water, and Borden's set to hang for the crime.
Nolan saves a number of rug-pulling reveals as The Prestige races to a close, and if you aren't paying attention to them all, you might have left confused. Essentially, both men had created ways to deceive the audience using doubles, duplicates or clones to help them pull off each trick. Was Angier using a duplicate in the finale staging of his Disappearing Man? Did he really die in the tank of water that night? Or was Borden ultimately tricked by his rival. I'm pretty sure I have the answers to all of Nolan's riddles. Read on!
What It Means
Obviously, if you have made it this far, you know that Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) had a twin brother, and the two siblings took turns playing both Borden and his manservant, Fallon. Bale, the actor, plays both characters throughout The Prestige, and the siblings go to incredible lengths to hide the identity of the twin so as to protect the integrity of their stage trick. This means that the one brother, the one who loved Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), is the one who is behind bars for Angier's "murder." And the real Borden -- the man who got his fingers blown off earlier by the "Catch A Bullet" trick -- is left on the outside while his sibling hangs for a crime that didn't happen.
Angier, meanwhile, followed a red herring left by Borden that sends the struggling magician to Colorado, and the workshop of unconventional inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). In a nutshell, Angier believes that Tesla built a machine for Borden, and he demands that the inventor replicate it. Tesla finally relents, and creates a machine that allows Angier to clone himself. Finally, Angier can pull off his magic trick. Each night, he clones himself on stage by stepping into Tesla's machine. The "original" Angier drops into a tank of water waiting below the stage. Meanwhile, the "clone" emerges in the balcony seconds after, completing the trick. We see Angier's blind assistants taking tanks of Angier "clones" out of the theater each night and dumping them in a deserted theater, where Angier and Borden will have their final encounter.
Angier, as you see, survives his final act. He drops a "clone" in the tank, allows Borden to be captured at the scene of the crime, knows that his rival will be charged with murder, and then chooses to disappear. Earlier in the film, Angier reveals that his family is wealthy, and that they are embarrassed by his pursuit of magic. So at the end of the film, we see "Angier" assuming the role of the wealthy Lord Caldlow -- who actually is the last created Angier clone.
This final deception is revealed to Angier's longtime associate, Cutter (Michael Caine). Cutter, upset by the betrayal, tips off Borden -- who is able to reunite with his daughter. Borden confronts Angier/Caldlow in the abandoned theater where the bodies of the "Angier" clones are left. He shoots Angier/Caldlow in the chest and leaves him to die... seemingly stopping the cycle of Angier clones and, finally, emerging victorious in the battle of the two men.
Why is Borden victorious? I mean, he has lost a ton in his life, including his brother and his true love, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), who hung herself because she believed her husband was cheating. But even through that, he is reunited with the daughter he believed would end up in Angier/Caldlow's care, and he's finally rid of his rival. Isn't he?
Revisiting The Prestige, the ending struck me as clear cut, as far as Nolan's conclusions go. There wasn't a lot of room for interpretation, and the reveal of the Angier body in the floating tank of water was just confirmation that the illusionist was "killing" himself night after night, but creating a fresh clone who would live until the next performance.
Of course, as Cutter says in the final bit of narration:
So, I dug around. And I tumbled down a spectacular Reddit hole of alternate theories. Fans of the film raised a lot of fantastic questions and points that film either doesn't address, or doesn't answer well enough. For example, if Angier really wants to perfect The Disappearing Man, why doesn't he just clone himself once, use the clone in the trick night after night, and never have to drown anyone? There's the fact that Angier dies symbolically this way because it's how his wife died. And Cutter has a line where he told Angier how drowning was like "going home," only Cutter lately reveals that he was lying. That dialogue is in the movie for a reason. Still, without a natural twin, Angier could have cloned himself once, then performed the trick from now until infinity with Borden never being the wiser.
However, that would mean he never could have framed Borden for "murder."
Another prevalent theory online states that Tesla's machine never worked, and that he was stringing the wealthy Angier along so he could fund his next project. When the government got too close to Tesla, the inventor left, leaving Angier with a broken machine. Those who follow that thread point out that Angier's "clones" should have had the same limp that the Angier Prime had, from a brutal fall earlier in the film. There are a surprising amount of people who believe that the real trick to The Prestigeis making the audience believe that a machine capable of cloning another human actually exists.
What do you believe? Is there a deeper twist at the end of The Prestige that we aren't seeing? Or did Christopher Nolan leave his cards on the table this time, for all to see? Weigh in below with your best guess and wild theories. And go watch The Prestige again if you haven't in a while.