Friday, November 24, 2006

The Prestige (2006)

A pair of warring magicians each tear apart the other's life in the latest film from Christopher Nolan, quickly becoming as close to a Hollywood sure thing as one can be without losing the interest of the indie-cred kids. I think he's a better writer than director (he'll likely never be more than a solid craftsman), and the likelihood of him ever equalling the accomplishment of Memento gets less likely with each new project. I can't hold that against Nolan, though; rare is the director who gets to make a film as good as the marvelous Guy Pearce vehicle that got him noticed in the first place, and with The Prestige he at least demonstrates that his skillful juggling of chronology in that masterwork was no fluke. Unlike many practitioners of the form (Guillermo Arriga being the latest and most blatant offender), Nolan recognizes that there has to be a reason to tell a story out of order if you're going to try that gambit. Rather than shameless gimmickry, the narrative complexity in this film serves as an extension of the illusion-and-trickery world through which the two protagonists pass. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman convince as the entangled duo, Jackman because his ladykiller smile always seems to cover a sense of grim desperation and sweaty hucksterism and Bale because his strangely sculpted face and intense dedication have made him one of the most fascinatingly obtuse, impenetrable actors in the business; in other words, Jackman always appears to be on the verge of revealing too much while Bale could live forever without revealing anything, and the chronological futzery reflects a perfect compromise between these two poles. There are other characters in the film (including Scarlett Johannson in her thirty-fourth role of the year), but they're superfluous, useful only as symbols of the lives the two men sacrifice to one-up his rival. That the story eventually literalizes this notion of all-consuming self-sacrifice is unsurprising, but even if it can be seem coming (as Bale's biggest secret sacrifice can) it still exists in a framework of careful logic so that it never feels cheap. I think the plot spins its wheels a few too many times in the home stretch, and Rebecca Hall's plot strand is a bit cheap and nasty, even for me, but it's understandable if the film is framed as a two-character piece. The disruptive, poignant final image -- a literal depiction of Pyrric victory -- is thus wholly earned. Nolan may never cast off another masterpiece, but if solid, satisfying exercises as this are the tradeoff, I'll deal.

Grade: B


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