A magic trick consists of three parts. The first part is called the pledge where the magician shows us something ordinary. We know that something is going to happen, but we are seeing something common. The second part is called the turn and this is where the magician does something with the ordinary object and we do not really know what has happened. The final part is the prestige where the magician shows us something amazing. We try to figure out the secret but we can't because we are not really looking and we don't really want to know.
This is the basic premise of a magic trick as explained in the opening of The Prestige. Throughout the film the characters are attempting to set up better and better magic tricks but what this is telling is actually that The Prestige itself is set up like a magic trick: meaning that there is a three act structure to the movie with a pledge, turn, and prestige.
Here is the pledge: Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are both magicians. Bale is the one with the most talent, but he is not a showman. That he is so good at magic is his asset, but he cannot play to the crowds very well. Hugh Jackman is the opposite. Jackman is a master showman and with the right trick he can have the crowd feeding out of his hand. The only trouble is that Jackman is not exceptionally original with his work. But rather than simply be competing magicians, Bale and Jackman hate each other and cannot let go of their grudge (the film reveals the origins of the grudge, but I will leave that for the viewer to discover). They actively work to sabotage each other and upstage the other's tricks and performances. This is the pledge. This is the something ordinary that director Christopher Nolan shows us. Then he delivers a turn and a prestige.
The simple truth is that Christopher Nolan does not make bad movies (Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins). As good as his other work has been, The Prestige is one of his best, though I do not know exactly how to grade or rank them. The structure of this movie is such that we are constantly reevaluating what we know about the characters, their motivations, and their actions. Simple things like hero and villain do not really apply and while making a movie about performing magic tricks could easily devolve into examinations of the tricks, the actual magic tricks are almost beside the point. The point is getting to be able to perform better than the other guy and to ruin the life and career of the other guy. But each character has very personal and different motivations from the other and Christopher Nolan does a fantastic job in keeping the focus of the film evenly on the two characters. This is a movie that would reward multiple viewings and would likely change our understanding of certain events throughout the movie. As we learn more everything changes, but not in the sense that the director is pulling our collective chains and jerking us around to be clever. The concept of the three act magic trick provides the structure and the dueling magicians provides the reason as the movie itself is a game of one-upsmanship between Bale and Jackman.
The Prestige is a damn good film and one which after leaving the movie theater my wife and I spent the car ride home discussing different variations on what exactly happened and what that meant for scenes earlier in the movie. There was more discussion on the movie than we have had about probably any other movie, and that I am still thinking about it several days later means that it left more of an impression that other movies.
What I am saying here is that The Prestige is easily one of the best movies of the year and that you need to go out and see the movie. Run, do not walk to the theater and buy your ticket.