The Prestige ★★★★

The most prominent blurb taken from reviews used in the ad campaign and on the DVD release for The Prestige was taken from Peter Travers: "You want to see it again the second it's over." I had that reaction when I went to see it during its theatrical run in 2006. I'd been captivated from start to finish, knowing I was being teased but not knowing in what way until later in the film than I care to admit. It was sharp and taut, and I appreciated that it engaged a part of my brain that most mainstream movies tended to ignore.

I did not, as it turned out, go back to see it again as soon as it finished - despite going to a 1:15 matinee, after which I certainly had opportunity to do so. Nor did I even watch it as soon as I bought the DVD. In point of fact, this just now was only my second. My recollection of events was little tarnished by the elapsed seven-plus years between viewings. Films that rely on being clever are often thrilling the first time through, but fail to hold up in repeat viewings. I was concerned that this would be the case.

For the most part, I was still invested throughout the story this time around. There is one glaring deficiency in Christopher Nolan's storytelling, though, that I felt more clearly this time than I did in 2006 and that's that he is almost certainly a psychopath. I can't prove it, but in every film of his that I've seen, I have the clear sense that I'm seeing a storyteller trying to mimic emotion because he has no idea what it actually feels like. (The actors he's cast in these movies have all been too good elsewhere for me to believe that the fault lies with them.)

Nolan handled the mystery and intrigue with aplomb, but once you know those secrets, you're left with the characters. Unfortunately, there's not much there. The perfect microcosm is the scene in which Hugh Jackman instructs ScarJo to become a double agent and go infiltrate Christian Bale's operation. She challenges that he's become obsessed and that learning Bale's trick won't bring back his wife.

"I don't care about my wife. I care about his trick," Jackman replies flatly.

And just like that, we move on. Nolan is satisfied that's all we need to hear or see in order to process these complex emotional dynamics. I could credit him for not having Jackman play it with manic energy, I suppose, but the brief flashes of facial expressions between the two actors looks more as though they're silently checking off that they've gotten that out of the way than that their characters are reacting to his startling admission.

This coldness is Nolan's Achilles heel, restricting his characters from ever developing into fully realized people. Aside from the admittedly interesting perspective of dissecting who knew or did what and when they knew or did it, there's no reason to actually care about these characters. It's a shame, because if there was any emotional aspect to the film at all, it'd be a five-star picture for me for sure.

The easiest contrast I can think to offer is The Sting, which also relies on plot twists to achieve its brilliance, but holds up to repeat viewings in large part because it's so easy to like and care about the people in the story. The Prestige falls short of that bar.

Given that I re-watched it as part of my Oscar Challenge for DVD Talk, I ought to remark on its two nominations: Art Direction (Art Direction: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Julie Ochipinti) and Cinematography (Wally Pfister). Victorian London is an awfully familiar setting in film, but I credit Crowley and Ochipinti with giving us the theaters of that world - and, of course, Tesla's magnificent laboratory. Pfister deftly manages to keep us up close with the characters and action while keeping us at arm's length from the secrets. That's not easy to do.

The Director's Notebook (19:30) ***
Disappointingly, we don't get even a full twenty minutes of bonus content. What's here is a serviceable survey of the pertinent topics, but the superficiality means we learn nothing of any real substance.

The Art of The Prestige *
I hate photo galleries as a bonus feature.

The Prestige Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#612/1610)

The Prestige > 50 First Dates --> #612
The Prestige > Wild Side (1995) --> #403
The Prestige > This Is 40 --> #201
The Prestige < Drácula --> #201
The Prestige < Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl --> #201
The Prestige < Thunderball --> #201
The Prestige > Walk the Line --> #188
The Prestige > Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull --> #182
The Prestige > Vincent --> #178
The Prestige > Silverado --> #177
The Prestige < Rachel Getting Married --> #177

The Prestige was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #177/1610

2006 Academy Awards (79th)
(N) ART DIRECTION -- Art Direction: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Julie Ochipinti
(N) CINEMATOGRAPHY -- Wally Pfister