Christopher Priest - Author
Jonathan Nolan - Screenwriter
Christopher Nolan - Screenwriter
Christopher Nolan - Director
Hugh Jackman - Rupert Angier
Christian Bale - Alfred Borden
David Bowie - Nikola Tesla
Michael Caine - John Cutter
Rebecca Hall - Sarah Borden
Scarlett Johansson - Olivia Wenscombe
Samantha Mahurin - Jess Borden
(I am gong to try to write less by assuming that you, dear reader, have seen the movie and understand it's physical premises.)
The Prestige offers an excellent opportunity to examine how virtues such a passion for excellence and self-sacrifice can become horrific Faustian examples of destructive obsession.
Self-sacrifice is often considered a virtue when that sacrifice is for another's good.
But self-sacrifice is also what obsessive people do for something that they selfishly want but don't need.
Here are some examples of he sacrifice that they risk and experience for the sake of their art.
Angier and Borden are assistants (plants) for another magician for which Cutter is the engineer. They go to a Chinaman's magic performance to discover the fishbowl trick. They see the man acting crippled afterwards getting into a carriage. They surmise that he's totally devoted to his craft.
BORDEN: This is a performance. This is why no one can detect his methods…total devotion to his art. A lot of self sacrifice…the only way to escape all this (reality).The concept of sacrifice is evident in the very next scene when Borden assists for The Great Virgil. In the small audience is a lady (Sarah) and a little boy (her nephew). When Virgil smashes the birdcage hidden under a cloth, the little boy cries: "He killed it!" speaking of the bird. Of course, Virgil reproduces the bird. When Borden approaches the boy, and shows him the live bird, the little boy asks, "But where's his brother?" Borden considers the boy for a moment and says "He's a sharp lad." … and later it is Borden that must discard the very smashed and dead bird hidden in the table's false top.
This dramatically foreshadows the sacrifices that both Borden and Angier will make in their attempts to rise to fame.
In showing a coin trick to the lad later, Borden advises never to show how the trick works because as soon as he does he'll be "nothing to them. Nothing." Notice here that PRIDE is the motivation. Borden says, "The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything."
In the next flashback scene Borden recalls how he used the trick to sneak into Sarah's apartment. But, telling her how he did it would not have impressed her. Being there, nonetheless, does.
Fallon (Borden's twin in disguise) is leaving Borden as Sarah comes in.
Borden tells his expecting-with-child and very worried girlfriend how he does the bullet catch.
There is a key exchange in this scene at 29:44:
BORDEN: Don't worry. Don't worry. Because, I not going to let anything happen. Every thing is going to be all right, because I love you very much.Indeed we begin to see that the love for magic and craft create a dysfunction in Borden's life.
SARAH: Say it again.
BORDEN: I love you.
SARAH: Not today.
SARAH: Well, some days it's not true. And today you don't mean it. Maybe today, you're more in love with magic than me. And I, being able to tell the difference makes the days it is true mean something.
Next we find Angier, in disguise, aiming a loaded gun at Borden and asking, "Which know did you tie?" Borden catches the live bullet, taking off two of his fingers.
Days later, when dressing the wound, Sarah can't believe the wound is still bleeding just as it first did. Of course, this is the other twin, who with the help of his brother, has chiseled off the same two fingers. Self-sacrifice for the trick. Passion for excellence or obsession?
Cutter returns to Angier to keep working. They both know that Borden's mistake and arrogance killed Julia. Angier changes his name to The Great Danton. As they prepare the climax bird trick this exchange (35:34):
ANGIER: Cutter the bird cage can't be our climax, everybody knows it.Hinting at the Faustian pledge that Angier will eventually kill far more than just a dove, getting his hands dirty with more that dirt and the blood of a bird.
CUTTER: Not like this, they don't.
ANGIER: I don't want to kill doves.
CUTTER: Then stay off the stage. You're a magician, not a wizard. You've got to get your hands dirty if you're going to achieve the impossible. (and the dove nods its head)
The bird trick goes wrong when Borden shows up to "fowl" it. This is payback for his fingers and the loaded gun. Although Angier wants revenge now.
Angier gets an audience with Tesla. Tesla shows him the effects of alternating current. Angier wants Tesla to make a "real" machine for him, not a trick.
Angier's Moment of Grace - Part 1 (51:27)
Tesla warns Angier to drop his obsession because of the cost (51:27). "No good will come of it." Angier thinks Tesla is talking about money, but Tesla isn't. Tesla admits that good came from his obsessions at first, but he has followed his obsessions too long, and now he is their slave…and one day "they will choose to destroy me."
Angier's Moment of Grace - Part 2 (52:35)
Olivia tries to get Angier to drop the obsession of revenge by suggesting that they are now even. He explodes:
ANGIER: Even? My wife for a couple of his fingers? He has a family now, and he's performing again. Borden is out there living his life, as he always intended, as if nothing has happened. And look at me. I'm alone, and no theater will touch me.In both of these Moments of Grace scenes, our tragic protagonist rejects the grace he is offered by first the scientist and then his lover. He is given an out, a way to live in peace. But he rejects it and embraces the obsession of his craft and the obsession of his revenge.
OLIVIA: Us. You're going to need a better disguise.
Olivia's line "you're going to need a better disguise" foreshadows the disguise he has to come up with, not just to sneak into Borden's show, but to come up with a "better trick," and how he disguises his "double." Angier will need a better solution than just a twin. "Better trick" is in quotes because in terms of a true moral premise "better" in this case is "worse" and "trick" is not a trick but a "real" Faustian event.
As the story continues, Angier's revenge gets out of control—a counter point to Cutter's remark that Angier rejects: "We don't do tricks we can't control."
Indeed, Angier soon makes it clear to Olivia that he doesn't care about his wife's death, but getting his hands on Borden's secret.
Tesla "perfects" his cloning device, but warns Angier that the box will only bring him misery. Tesla's advice is to drop it in the deepest ocean. The box, of course, the physical object of Angier's pursuit, is a metaphor for Angier's psychological obsession with revenge, which should be dropped into the deepest ocean, as well.
But Borden is as much involved in the obsession, at least for his craft. Sarah pleads with Borden, who is probably the evil twin:
SARAH: I want you to be honest with me. No tricks, lies and secrets. Do you love me.Distraught at their dysfunctional relationship, Sarah goes to Alfred's workshop, looks at the birds that are mostly destined to death, and then hangs herself. She's a bird, who is willingly sacrificed (by the Borden's) for the sake of the ultimate trick (which she does not understand). Her hanging sounds like the fatal snap of the birdcage.
BORDEN: Not today, Love.
In the end, after Borden is scheduled to die by hanging, his little girl, Jess is brought by Lord Cordlow to visit before he dies. Borden looks at Lord Cordlow, it's his nemesis, Angier, as it has always been. Borden tries to tell the guards that he's been tricked and that the man that just walked off with his daughter is the man he's accused of killing. But no one believes him.
Cutter delivers Angier's devices to Lord Cordlow and is shocked to see Angier.
Borden says goodbye to Fallon, who will live on for both of them. Borden says he's sorry for a lot of things. He wishes he had left Angier to his trick.
As Borden mounts the gallows, above the trap door that will kill him, just as the trap doors killed Angier's clones, Cutter and Lord Cordlow push the Tesla's box to end of a dilapidated theater warehouse. Cutter explains that his earlier description to Angier about the sailor who almost drowned who said drowning was like he was going home, was a lie. Cutter says to Angier that the sailor said, "It was agony." Angier dreadfully looks in the tanks holding his dead clones...100 of them. He reminds himself: "No one cares about the man in the box."
He hears a noise. Is it Cutter? No, it's Fallon, who throws the rubber ball at him -- the rubber ball that symbolizes the transportation of a man from one place to another. Angier, distracted, picks up the ball, and Fallon shoots him, just as Borden says "Abracadabra!" and is hung.
Then Fallon/Borden explains the trick, to the dying Angier.
BORDEN: Sacrifice, Rupert, that's the price of a good trick. But you wouldn't know anything about that would you?Pride. Lord Cordlow dies, next to 100 of his clones that he has killed.
Angier: It took courage not knowing if I'd be the man in the box or the Prestige. You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth. Their world is miserable, solid, all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second…then you cold make them wonder….it was the look on their faces.
In retrospect we might figure out that Angier sets up his death during the 100th performance, by luring Borden back stage, and then Cutter, not knowing the trick, and Angier not appearing that night as The Prestige, is able to pin his own murder on Borden to get revenge.
The Moral Premise
In consideration of the moral premise we typically have a vice that leads to some physical detriment; and a virtue that leads to some greater good.
But in a tragedy, such as The Prestige, you have the two prongs of the moral premise that both descend. That is, a vice that leads to some physical detriment; and the vice's extreme that leads to some greater detriment.
Thus, our tragic moral premise can be stated this way:
If you have additional insights or a contrary opinion, let me know. Add a comment.
Obsessive Pride leads to dysfunction; but
Obsessive Revenge leads to destruction…100 times over.