Friday, July 14, 2017

Top 26 Things I Love About The Prestige (that no one talks about)

The Prestige is one of Christopher Nolan’s most polarizing films. True, detractors love to hate on Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, but there’s something about The Prestige that sparks divide. I’ve always loved the film, and was happy when dedicated readers of this blog encouraged me to add The Prestige to my No One Talks About blog series. With Nolan’s Dunkirk on the brink of release, I thought it’d be fun to highlight a few things I love about one of Nolan’s most divided films. (Note: All major plot points concerning The Prestige will be revealed in this post.)

“Are you watching closely?” immediately followed by a cut to black, silence. Perfect way to start a puzzle.

Christopher Nolan is one of the few contemporary, major directors who manipulates time so freely in his films. Nolan makes studio movies with big budgets (granted, The Prestige’s budget was smaller than most of Nolan’s other films), yet he has little convention for time, using it instead as a narrative weapon. The first two and a half minutes of The Prestige, for example, disorient us because we have no idea where we are or when we are. But it doesn’t matter. The sequence is so tightly constructed, we can’t help but be enthralled immediately. Nolan’s movies are rides, you can either chose to get on, or stand idly as it passes you by.

The Prestige cost $40 million. Batman Begins (released the year before The Prestige) was a $150 million movie, while The Dark Knight (released two years after The Prestige) cost $185 million. I love that sandwiched between two blockbusters, Warner Bros. let Nolan and Christian Bale run off and make a weird little magic movie.

The street light turning on once Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) arrives in Colorado Springs.

I love Hans Zimmer and his collaboration with Nolan (particularly the score to Interstellar), but there’s something to be said for David Julyan’s restrained, moody strings. There is a quiet, atmospheric tension Julyan brings to Nolan’s Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige that should not be overlooked.

Angier bowing to the crowd a little too eagerly. Love that his deception was initially a bit rusty.

I talk about economy of movement a lot in these posts, and that’s because I think it’s important to highlight when an actor does something that feels so natural, it doesn’t feel like they were directed to do it. The way Cutter (Michael Caine) gently picks up an axe and checks his watch is so instantly believable. This guy does this all the time.

Gotta give it up for Ricky Jay, the great character actor and real life magician who trained Jackman and Bale in magic for the film.

The color palette to the film is incredible. Cinematographer Wally Pfister is a genius. Come back, sir!

Part of the benefit of manipulating time the way Nolan does is that it makes for such active repeat viewings of his films. Right here, Angier and his wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), are openly discussing Angier’s family and his name change. It’s all in the open. Are you watching closely?

You have to wonder, how much of what Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Fallon (Bale again) are doing is creepy manipulation? They’re impressing a young lady, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), just so Alfred can be with her. Doesn’t seem right. But I suppose that’s what the film is about: two (three?) people so obsessed with their craft that they’d kill, lie, and cheat just to be notorious.

Shots like this are how your film gets Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction.

The subtlety of Bale’s work is remarkable. The first time I saw The Prestige, I was dumbfounded by Bale’s lack of chemistry with Hall in this scene. Then you realize it’s all intentional, because this Bale isn’t the “Borden” we know. This is what makes for such active rewatches.

I want to highlight how rare it is that a modern, American studio movie was shot almost exclusively with a handheld camera. Yes, there are some brief tracking shots and still set-ups, but mostly, The Prestige was shot on a camera operator’s shoulder. Nolan does this with all his films – by now it’s a trademark of his style – but it is still rare as hell.

I know David Bowie’s performance as Nikola Tesla has been discussed a lot (for good reason, it’s so smart), but I wanted to note that his introduction is one of my favorite character introductions in contemporary film. From his own creation, man is born.

Those eyes.

Jackman’s delivery of this line. Hilarious.

Angier taking his anonymous bow under the stage. And the light shining through, such a nice touch.

Borden’s smug look after he tells Angier’s assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), how Angier does his “New Transported Man” trick. “…mute, overweight, and, unless I’m mistaken, very drunk.”

Borden’s salute to Angier. Gotcha, bitch.

Love this dinner scene, as “Borden” here is clearly the “Fallon” who was just buried. Drunk and pissed off and alive.

Also a good time to mention that this was Rebecca Hall’s first major movie. She was 23 when they filmed it. So young, so green, yet knocking Bale out scene after scene.

Lord Caldlow (Hugh Jackman) saying, “Oh, for God’s sake,” as Borden promises his daughter that he’s going to take her home soon. Lot packed into that line, mostly, “Hey, you’re going to be dead soon (because of me). Don’t promise your daughter this stuff.”

I love Nolan for not immediately going in for a close-up of Caine when Cutter realizes who Lord Caldlow is.

I know this film has its fair share of detractors, and I get why. Perhaps the ending feels too tidy for some. It does remove a lot of the mystery (Which “Borden” loved Sarah? What sacrifices did “Angier” make?), but I think it’s deeply satisfying. Plus, as mentioned, it makes for thrilling rewatches. I get more from this movie every time I watch it. I’ll always enjoy putting the puzzle of The Prestige together.

Finally, I love when movies begin with a shot that is eventually called back.

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18 comments:

  1. The Prestige grew on me for sure. It's not my favorite Nolan movie, but I like it more now than I did immediately after I saw it.

    I never realized that was Hall's first big movie. I remember being annoyed with the films marketing because they were showing shots of Scarlett Johansson while it was Hall's lines that were being read. It felt unfair.

    Great post!

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    1. Ohhh that's right! I remember them doing that with the previews. So, so weird. Marketing films is just so goddamn dumb most of the time. The trailer for The Beguiled, for example, is one of the worst trailers I've ever seen. It reveals major plot points (including the end), and sells it as a GOTCHA BITCH thriller, which it isn't at all.

      Anywayyyy haha. I'm glad The Prestige grew on you! It isn't my favorite Nolan film either (that'll always be Memento), but I do enjoy its twists and turns.

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  2. OH MY GOD YESSSS!! I'm so happy you made this post!

    This right here is my favorite movie from Nolan by far and in my top 10 of all time. I still remember how much my jaw dropped - and the jaws of people I saw it with - during this movie. It's also extremely rewarding on rewatches because you really see how Nolan hid things in plain sight. I love that this is a movie that talks of magic and uses the cinema's magic to pull a trick on the audience yet never treat the audience as fools with very rich script, great characters and amazing acting. The only weaker link is Johansson who isn't very convincing as being in love with either Borden or Angier (how does a woman fail to convey for any character played by Jackman not once but twice in her career is beyond me) but she is all right. Nolan always had trouble writing female characters and it takes a strong actress to overcome that but Hall succeeds here and does so much. I'm shocked to read she was 23 - my God, what a mature, nuanced work. My two favorite things here are Julyan's score and Jackman's work which up until Logan was his best. The way he asks 'which knot did you tie?' during this gorgeously shot funeral scene and the heartbreaking 'it was...it was the look on their faces' as Julyan's score soars just takes my breath away every time I watch that movie.

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    1. Oh, this post was definitely born from your encouragement, so you can thank yourself for this! I'm sorry I didn't have any shirtless Jackman photos, but I figured you see plenty on a daily basis ;)

      "Hid things in plain sight." YES. That is a perfect way to put it. I hadn't seen the film in years, and when I was watching it for this post I kept going, "Ohh, riiiiiight." So damn smart. I agree Johansson is the weak link here. Her "stardom" was definitely on the rise, so I feel her casting was partly for marketing purposes. But she is good, just not as great as everyone else.

      SO happy you like Julyan's score as well. It's such great work. And I fully agree that Hall's performance is so nuanced, and Jackman's performance is right up there with his best.

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  3. Man, I am overdue for a re-watch of this. It's easily my favorite film of Nolan's.

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    1. Oh really? I didn't know it was your fave. That's cool to hear!

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  4. I do like this film a lot not just for the visuals but also the way Nolan plays with time as it is worth watching repeatedly. You see something new every time. I really enjoyed Rebecca Hall's performance in that film as she had the best female performance in that film as I also liked Piper Perabo. I agree that Scarlett was the weak link as she didn't really didn't do much in that film.

    Your mentions of Bowie is spot-on as I was excited in seeing him in the film but once he put on the Hungarian accent. Once again, you don't see Bowie but you see him as Nikola Tesla. A true master in the art of disguise. I still miss him.

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    1. I still miss him too. He really was a master of disguise in his film roles (and his music, come to think of it). He does so much with his small role in The Prestige. His command, his presence... larger than life, truly.

      Glad you're a fan of the film as a whole. It really does get better with repeat viewings.

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  5. I think I'm about to go on a Nolan binge, starting with The Prestige to catch all the things you mentioned, and going through Insomnia which I kind of missed and loved for its mood, then watch Following cause it looks intriguing and is just over an hour.

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    1. That's awesome, and I cannot imagine you would regret such a binge. What's astounding about his career is that he went from such small films (Following, Memento, Insomnia) to major ones, but the quality did not diminish in the slightest. There are very few contemporary directors I can say that about. Love his work.

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  6. I realize that The Prestige gets a lot of love from people, but I honestly don't know why. This movie has massive plot problems, or, if you want to rescue the plot, the stupidest, most selfish characters I've come across in a long time.

    I get that tastes are different, but I don't see how this script made it through without a ton of revision.

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    1. I'm glad you commented, because I was looking to explore a dissenting opinion. What is one of the massive plot problems you're referencing? I'm genuinely curious. I do agree that the characters in the film are selfish beyond control. They do have loves in their lives (Angier's wife, Borden's child), but they love themselves above all else. I think the film is a cautionary tale about obsession, and how it can force you to lose everything. But you have other thoughts, and I'd love to hear them.

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  7. The great thing about these posts is that they encourage the reader, i.e. me, to go back and revisit a film with fresh eyes. I've only seen The Prestige once. While I enjoyed most of it, the end felt like too big a deus ex machina for me, a cop out. Now, I want to watch it again to see if I still feel the same way. Great job, as always.

    Without looking back through your site, I'm not sure how you feel about Beasts of the Southern Wild. That's a film that I think lends itself to this kind of treatment. Just a suggestion.

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    1. Thanks Dell! This one definitely benefits from repeat viewings. That's part of the fun in the way Nolan set the story up. Would love to hear your thoughts if you give it another go.

      I did like Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I'm not sure I love it enough to do a post like this. But I do appreciate your suggestion. I just have to really feel the movie, you know?

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  8. Awesome post! This is one of my favorites of Nolan, and I'm always amazed by what I pick up when I rewatch it. I kind of hope he retreats to making more movies like this. Hall gives such an amazing performance, and it's easily some of Bate and Jackman's best too.

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    1. Thanks Katy! I haven't seen Dunkirk but I like that he's stepping away from sci-fi and space for at least one film. My favorite film of Nolan's is Memento, so I would have no reservations about him going back to "smaller" work. But I still love everything he does.

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  9. Still my favorite Nolan movie next to Memento. I always notice something new every time i watch it. I still remember watching the movie for the first time and really trying to figure out who was playing Fallon in the movie. I knew i had seen that actor before but had no idea where. When the twist came i felt like an idiot. The actor was standing right next to him the whole time. I don't think many other actors or director could pull that off.

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    1. Oh, I totally agree. It's such subtle and skilled make-up on "Fallon." He's right there and you have no idea. So good. I had a lot of fun speculating who was Fallon at any given time when I rewatched the film for this post. Whatta tricky little flick.

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