Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts…
So states Michael Caine’s Cutler in The Prestige, the fifth film by director Christopher Nolan, and to some still his best, almost fifteen years later.
The Prestige remains certainly the most intentionally tricksy of Nolan’s films; thus far a cinematic lexicon built on the cinematic puzzle box, built on an intentional level of enigma audiences must buy into if they are to become consumed by his pictures. This was evidenced all the way back to Memento in 2001, his first major film after 1998’s low budget impression Following, which subverts traditional storytelling structure to depict a crime mystery in reverse. Ultimately, however, Nolan’s films are often deceptively simple, and intentionally so. “Are you watching closely?” asks Christian Bale early on in The Prestige, as much to the audience as anyone else, and here’s the truth: if we are, we’ll solve the puzzle.
The trick in The Prestige revolves around three key elements. The Pledge, the Turn and finally the titular Prestige, all building to the culmination of the magic act being pulled on the audience. Nolan’s trick in this film is, of course, that the entire movie is one big ‘prestige’, and we are the stooges. “You don’t really want to know” Cutler tells us in the bookending monologue. “You want to be fooled” he suggests, and this may be true. The key slight of hand in The Prestige is clear if you’re looking for it. I contend, however, that this three act magic trick is, thus far, true also of Nolan’s entire career.
It is a trick he has already pulled off and it is entirely possible he’ll do the same thing a second time around.
The first part is called the ‘Pledge’. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t…
Nolan’s Pledge is Memento.
Once the director has established his fame, rocketing into the cultural consciousness after the cascade effect of Memento’s thrillingly innovative structure, his first main picture after several short films—the aforementioned Following—became something of a curate’s egg to followers and fans of the director. It is black and white, a deliberately modern neo-noir set on the streets of London, starring nobody recognisable and rather Nolan’s old friend Jeremy Theobald, and it feels more like a verite take on Hitchcock than it does the Lean-like epic stylist of The Dark Knight Rises.
In other words, while Following is a perfectly competent reel, it is not a calling card. That’s Memento. That’s Nolan’s Pledge that he was a filmmaker who held the promise of truly innovative cinema. This is not to say nobody had played with form and narrative structure before—Quentin Tarantino certainly built his own career on pictures like Pulp Fiction which deliberately operate to a non-linear template—but nobody quite took the constructs of film noir and shot them through a lens like Memento, which dares to construct a mystery in reverse and serve to have the culmination, the catharsis, be a deeply nihilistic psychological possibility. Memento is rough edged but intentionally so. It is a chrysalis of what Nolan could and would end up doing.
It works as his Pledge precisely because it takes an ordinary concept, one we have seen a thousand times over—the worn out gumshoe, the femme fatale, the decaying urban landscape and the crooked cop—and transforms it into something extraordinary. A mundane linearity becomes a heady brew of confusion with Memento, and all for the better.
The second act is called the ‘Turn’. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary…
Nolan’s Turn is Batman Begins.
After the striking major debut of Memento, Nolan follows an unexpected path and takes a studio picture that he didn’t initially write, the remake of a Nordic original, and follows a relatively safe, traditional path with Insomnia. And while this, yes, is probably the weakest of Nolan’s films post-Memento, it is an important step as it helps to enable his coming Turn. It sees him work with two of the biggest stars in the world, in Al Pacino and the late Robin Williams, and continues to solidify his reputation as a meticulous craftsman who could take projects and bring them in under budget and on time. Nolan polishes Insomnia’s script and introduces flashes of the style that would mark him from here on in. It is a canvas, a practice almost, for what comes next.
Batman Begins could also be titled ‘Nolan Begins’. His successful, vibrant revival of the world’s most iconic comic-book character did not just rescue Batman from the camp cinematic doldrums Joel Schumacher ran the franchise into in the 1990s, but it marks the kind of storyteller he is. Nolan builds the script from the ground up, blending Bat-mythology with Bruce Wayne’s dark, troubled psychology, and concocting a visual brew which both ascribes to the traditional summer blockbuster and yet speaks to something more. The post-9/11 world of cinema, marked with introspective, jagged, brutal action and gloomy geopolitical pronouncements, is one Nolan embraces, but he still makes Batman Begins a spectacle. His film is immeasurably darker than any Batman films since Tim Burton, and noticeably less whimsical, but it is not without hope or wonder.
This is why Nolan’s Turn is not The Prestige, too, which many might imagine serves that purpose. The Prestige, released a year later, is very accomplished, but to me, that film is simply Nolan laying out the trick as opposed to pulling it off. Batman Begins is the movie that shows the kind of personalised fusion of psychological, internal emotional motivation and broad, IMAX-bothering visual cinerama that Nolan’s films would hybridise and encapsulate from the film after The Prestige onward.
Every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call the ‘Prestige’…
Nolan’s Prestige, logically, is therefore The Dark Knight.
Now to some, aside from his Prestige actually being The Prestige, certain audiences might well venture Inception as worthy of this title. In many respects, Inception remains Nolan’s most bizarre and audacious picture to date, one in which he delightfully removes the established rules of the waking world and all of its scientific constructs, while imposing a rule-based order on the world of the subconscious. The final hour of Inception is a tour de force and amongst the best work Nolan has ever done, in how he constructs a dual, kinetic narrative and escalates suspense across a multitude of canvases, backed by Hans Zimmer’s peerless (possibly best ever) score.
However, The Dark Knight remains, to my mind, the most accomplished example of Nolan’s technical acumen and storytelling skill. It is The Godfather Part II of comic-book trilogies. It genuinely could hold sway as the Greatest Superhero Film of All Time, and is a near-peerless example of how to take everything established in the first part of a story, and escalate the narrative for the second act. The Dark Knight has been described, quite rightly, as a Heat-esque crime epic as much as a superhero film, and Nolan chooses to foreground The Dark Knight in a powerful sense of place. Chicago as Gotham. The texture is everywhere. It is as much a character as Batman, or Harvey Dent, or the Joker or anyone else. Nolan talks of totems in Inception, the power of things. Gotham is The Dark Knight’s totem.
Chiefly, however, why The Dark Knight is Nolan’s Prestige, is that it displays a filmmaker at the top of his game. He understands the importance of a script which develops the geopolitical ecosystem of Gotham’s crime fighters and criminals and the story reflects that, with Dent’s determination to fight evil in the open contrasting Bruce’s belief he can do so in the shadows, all the while Heath Ledger provides one of cinema’s most devastating transformations as the Joker, a force of nature who cuts through Gotham’s order and renders chaos. Come the moral choices that make up the climactic part of The Dark Knight, you feel ripped asunder by the confluence of powerful dramatic impetus and visual spectacle foisted on the screen, none of which has aged over the last decade thanks to a heavy use of practical effects.
But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back…
The question as to whether Nolan has brought back the magic of The Dark Knight since 2008 remains an open question.
While Dunkirk was largely universally praised, you will find a divergent amount of critics who adore and revile The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar in equal measure. Tenet opens next week in some countries, and many have already wondered if it will serve as a companion piece of sorts to Inception. Whatever tricks it pulls, Tenet will spark discussion and fascination that will last years, to the degree few filmmakers beyond Nolan can inspire.
This, possibly, is his greatest trick and his ongoing Prestige. The secret of how he continues to keep us guessing.
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