True suspense back in Nolans’ new taleGuiltlessly entertaining, brain-twisting, creepy, weird suspense is much too rare these days. Once the theaters and airwaves were full of films and anthology programs delivering on promises issued by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Rod Serling of a journey to a land of both shadow and substance, or the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to the outer limits, or to deliver escape from the four walls of the workaday world.
But today it seems the genre has been suffocated by predictable slasher flicks, each more soaked in blood and vivisected organs than the last. For every “Sixth Sense,” there are dozens of Saws and Final Destinations ― films that replace real suspense with wanton slaughter.
But there is hope, in the form of Christopher and Jonathon Nolan and their new tale of rivalry, love, revenge, magic, illusion and mystery, “The Prestige.” Like the best episodes of the radio dramas “Suspense” or “Escape,” “The Prestige” is a melodramatic thrill with a simple moral: in this case, that obsession can be deadly ― read that out loud in an ominous baritone announcer voice for the full effect. Though not exactly emotionally deep and pretty much meaningless, it’s also completely engrossing and guaranteed to keep you in ... suspense!
Of course, this isn’t the first time Christopher Nolan and his brother and co-writer Jonathon have held us in their thrall. Their 2000 film “Memento” was an economical and constantly stimulating thriller. That film famously used two-pronged reverse storytelling to express the feeling of its protagonist, who lacked a short-term memory, its black-and-white flashbacks and backwards color scenes coming together like two sides of a parabola until the entire picture was revealed.
Like “Memento,” “The Prestige” also begins at the end ― with the death of stage magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), seemingly at the hands of his lifetime rival Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The film then weaves in and out of various flashbacks, telling the brutal story of the death of Angier’s wife and his quest for vengeance against Borden, who eventually finds the family happiness that Angier was denied. When Borden reveals his spectacular “transported man” trick, Angier flies to the ends of the Earth to beat it, eventually putting his hope in science over illusion.
Just as in “Memento,” the narrative of “Prestige” reflects its characters. The Nolans tell us outright, often through the no-nonsense backstage magician stage manager Cutter (Michael Caine), that their narrators will lie. Sometimes they even explain exactly how. Yet when the story’s relentless trickery begins to unfold it’s still stunningly easy to fall for it ― and when the last act comes to a close, and the curtain falls, the ultimate solution is as macabre and surprising and creepy as you might hope, and every last piece fits together shiveringly perfectly.
This single film, of course, isn’t sufficient to hail the rebirth of the halcyon days of suspense ― but that’s all the more reason to savor the show while you can. The film’s tagline is, “Are you watching closely?” But they need hardly have asked. It’s impossible to look away.
Suspense / English
by Ben Applegate