The Prestige begins like a camera completely out of focus. Nothing makes any sense. Nolan's film flips backwards and forwards through time like he's having a Memento flashback, characters wander across the screen talking about things we can't begin to understand. Locations appear, performances are had, and for a moment I thought I'd misread something and it was actually directed by David Lynch. Not so. Before long things start getting clearer. Bit by bit, everything comes into focus, a gradual process until by its end the film's brilliant, complete picture is crystal clear. To get there, you'll have to earn it. You'll have to hate it before you like it. During it's running time The Prestige will make you irritated, confused, exasperated, frustrated but before it's over... you'll fall in love with it. It's not just Nolan's best film; it's one of the best of the year.
Unlike the lame-duck Illusionist, The Prestige is actually about magicians. The film ducks in and out of the lives of two rival performers, as they build their careers and trample over one another on their way to success in late 19th century London. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) start out together, working for a rival magician. Both aspire to a career in magic, but Angier refuses to get his hands dirty while Borden proclaims the only way to become a great magician is a path of total commitment. Things go wrong, they part as enemies. Angier holds a grudge against Borden and they go out in the world to make their fortune.
Meanwhile Borden has an ace up his sleeve: an unbeatable trick. He walks in one door and out another across the room and calls it "The Transported Man". Unable to fathom how he's done it, the trick drives Angier completely mad. Their rivalry grows more vicious and desperate, with their magic skills used not only to wow audiences but wreak havoc on one another.
None of it's really that simple. Telling you anything more though would be criminal. The movie unfolds as it should, with Chris and Jonathan Nolan's script teasing you along with glimpses of the future. Nothing is certain in this incredibly complex tale of rivalry, revenge, and misdirection. The film wraps itself in the world of magic, employing tricks of its own to lead the audience towards an incredibly conclusion.
The cast is beyond compare. Jackman and Bale are supremely gripping as Angier and Borden, and my ass spent most of the movie on the edge of my seat simply waiting for the moments when they'd finally confront one another. Michael Caine is back as another crotchety mentor, but there's a reason for that. He's damned good at it. David Bowie shows up playing completely against type as Dr. Nikola Tesla assisted by the better than ever Andy Serkis. Scarlett Johansson and Piper Perabo play more minor roles in the film. They're assistants, so their job is to look incredibly hot. They're great at that.
The movie's so packed with twists and turns that for some following it will prove impossible. What I'm saying here is that like Nolan's first noteworthy film Memento, The Prestige isn't interested in pandering. This is incredibly high level storytelling, in fact there's a good chance it'll go right over some people's heads. This is Memento era Nolan back from the grave. This isn't the director of big Hollywood films like Batman Begins and Insomnia. This is the guy who made a movie from the perspective of a man with a five second memory, and then managed to make it better by showing the damn thing upside down and in reverse. This time he's taken his gift for the tangled and dense, and topped himself. It's completely absorbing. Don't blame the movie if it flies over audiences heads, what Nolan's done here is a masterpiece of entertainment and art.