(Warning: spoilers and very long post ahead)
The Prestige is a beautifully intricate movie with a very disappointing end. Or at least that was what I thought as I watched, somewhat mystified, the “Deus ex machina” that the Nolan brothers decided to pull at the last minute to extricate themselves from a plot that, perhaps, was starting to spin out of control from some many “twists and turns”.
However, I couldn’t keep my mind from the last few lines of the movie that seemed to speak directly to the viewer, urging him to echo them in his head until he understood them.
“Now you’re looking for the secret…
But you won’t find it…
…because you don’t really want to know…
…you want to be fooled.”
Was there more to be seen then what was being shown? Were we as the audience “watching close” enough, as we had been advised to? Were we wanting to be fooled by the lightning and thunder of the Tesla machine, wanting it to be real, because the true explanation of the trick is just too simple and uninteresting?
And so it dawned on me, as it has, it seems, on a number of other viewers, the idea that the Tesla Machine isn’t real, that it doesn’t really work. That the Prestige is not a sci-fi film, nor is it naturalistic up until the end and 99% of the time, but that it is 100% realistic all throughout. That, in fact, one of its many ideas is that behind all the hocus-pocus of magic lie simple, rational and oftentimes disappointing explanations.
However, as many have pointed out, the idea that there is no “science magic” at all – that the machine Tesla built was simply a ruse to finance his research, which Angier was able to put to good use in playing his greatest and cruelest trick ever –, while solving some of the plot inconsistencies, raises at the same time many of its own. So, what follows is my opinion of what really happened in the Prestige. I think it can provide for an interesting reinterpretation of many of the film’s scenes and dialogs.
I believe Tesla, a man with evident showmanship as depicted in his public exhibition in the Albert Hall, while initially reluctant, ended up agreeing to build the transporting machine for the wealthy and obsessed Angier, in order to fund his now unappreciated research. Not being able, of course, of constructing such an impossible device, he planned with his magic-enthusiast assistant a little bit of a magic show of their own for Angier. The cats and the hats scene were staged by them to led Angier to believe that the machine worked as a replicator.
The scientific-naďve Angier was played upon in the same manner as he had played upon the ingenuous audience of his magic shows, with the two men of science humoring him with good-natured irony. For indeed Tesla did not really want to swindle Angier. He did build and supplied him with the machine. That is, the only possible machine that could be built: an illusionist’s contraption.
Angier eventually tested his new acquisition and realized that no such replicating machine existed, and that Borden must have been using a double all along as Cutter had suggested. He understood now, however, the deceptive power of science, and returned to London with the idea of employing the machine in a new trick and in the enactment of his final revenge upon Borden. Ironically, his new trick was not new at all, but was the same old simple trick of the transported man he had performed before, only with more glare and gloss, and a few water tanks being moved out of the theater every night.
He knew Borden would come to see the act, so whenever he spotted him in the audience we would present “the pledge” and “the turn” of the Real Transported Man himself and his double would only appear for “the prestige” far away in the balcony, and therefore not recognizable by Borden, who was now starting to be taken in, as Angier had been, by the power of the “true magic” of science (for had he not been informed of the “mysterious” water-tanks?). Whenever Borden was not present, Angier himself appeared in the prestige, being finally able to personally receive the audience’s applause at the end.
In the day Borden came intending to expose the trick, Angier, who was preparing for the prestige but also watching and waiting for this moment, spotted him among the volunteers from the public and quickly placed (or had placed by the blindmen) the water-tank under the trap door. Borden, much more interested in studying the machine then the presenter (whom he knew to be Angier from previous shows) doesn’t even notice that, this time, a double is on stage.
The look on the drowning man’s face as he is struggling, first to understand what happened to him, and then to save his life, cannot be the look of Angier or one of his supposed clones in the moment of their greatest victory, for which he had prepared for so long, and whose “price” he had willingly accepted. No, it is the face of a desperate man, crying for help – the face of Angier's double.
Angier had thus finally and resoundingly beaten Borden in the magician’s game, completely destroying his opponent’s life in the process. He even went so far as to taunt him by offering to buy his secret, only to tear it to pieces in front of him without reading it – a trick he was no longer interested in and which he now believed to be very simple indeed.
However, things turned for Angier when Cutter went to see him and learned of the truth. Upon meeting “Lord Caldlow”, the pragmatically minded Cutter finally understood the true and only possible nature of the trick. In his mind, Angier had gone too far that time by killing an innocent man, his double Root, and using Cutter himself to incriminate and sentence to death their former colleague, Borden.
Cutter suspected, from the first Transported Man, that Borden might have a twin, which he eventually confirmed when Fallon was kidnapped. Even though he cared for Angier, he thought, in face of his terrible deeds, that the only fair thing to do was to give the surviving Borden the chance of retribution for his brother’s death.
As the film draws to a close we find Cutter and Angier in the old warehouse, darkness filling the place, except for the small light coming from the lantern. A disenchanted Cutter sets the tone for the final sequence:
“Take a minute to consider your achievement.”
He then tells him about the sailor who said drowning was like going home. Angier had taken comfort in that thought, not only in connection with his wife death, but to appease his mind for the murder he commited. Ironically for Cutter, his white lie about drowning had helped Angier in getting the necessary nerve to proceed with his act.
Angier, who had struggled with the idea of drowning (remember him submerging his face in the basin?), upon seeing Cutter leave instinctively turns his lantern towards a water-tank, and what does he see? A corpse strongly resembling himself. In a split second he understands that it must have been put there by Cutter. He even knows how he did it:
“No one cares about the man in the box”.
Cutter, who was a master of characterization, obtained and appropriately characterized several corpses (men in boxes no one cares about) to resemble Angier, the effect being aided by the obfuscation in the warehouse and of the water-tanks themselves.
However, Angier was still not able to understand the purpose of all this scenario. It was then that in entered Fallon, who tells him about the true nature of his relation to “Borden” and how they performed their trick, not before shooting Angier in the chest.
Angier, a dying man, now understands that the twin was let in by Cutter in order to kill him, but also that Cutter in his sympathy did not wish to dispossess him of his strange “achievement”, which he so greatly prized. And so Angier takes advantage of the scenario Cutter prepared for him and proceeds to play on Borden the final part of his great trick, telling him the imaginary story of his first use of the machine, what it did and the “price” that he had paid for his art.
For he knew well that he had paid a great price for his obsession – an innocent man’s life and his own. But in the game of illusion and masterful deceit, Borden’s secret disclosed and his own preserved, he had been the victor – and he had, after all, performed a most wonderful magic trick in this “solid, solid world”.
In the end, a close shot of one of the tanks is shown. Not just any tank, but a special one. The tank where Root, Angier’s double, lies.
A beautiful film that really plays its own magic trick on its audience, isn’t it?
D. P. Monteiro