No spoilers. I watched The
Prestige yesterday. Despite the
hypesters flogging The Grudge 2 and Saw 3, I'll say that
the best horror movie likely to come out this year is this tale of
fevered magicians. I haven't had nightmares about a movie since my
but The Prestige made for a wigged out night. I'm pretty sure
the filmmakers entirely knew what they were doing, too. Henry James
has nothing like any of the "yet another turn of the screw" that's
scattered through the story of these characters.
And out-doing The Turn of the
is exactly what the movie is about. It's a modern gothic. I used to
have fun reading the Victorian macabre, largely to marvel at a
completely alien category of horrors. Modern Hollywood ghosts are go
about chopping random people into bits (off-hand example: 13
Ghosts) That's never really done much for me. My fun few weeks
with the J-Horror classics were all
about the menace of physical harm. I once mentioned the interesting
contrast between J-Horror and traditional Japanese myth, in which most
of the spectral plane was concerned with the menace of conscience rather
than physical harm (I should mention that after writing that I did
encounter a J-Horror piece: The Eye 2 that more closely followed
the traditional Japanese role of ghosts). There's a large tradition of
the same in the Western tradition as well, but especially in Victorian
times, and in the fullness of Victorian mores, the greatest menace of
the supernatural is in the moral corruption of the living (off-hand
example: the succubus). Henry James's great "turn of the screw" was
that evil enough specters could even corrupt the most innocent of
creations. Right. I watch kids shoot up their classrooms on the news
every now and then, so I suppose I'm not best conditioned to react to
So if to some extent we moderns are jaded to traditional horrors, what's
left to really perform the combination minatory and titillating task of
horror? Nothing less than the fundamentals of story-telling. Plot,
setting, character, combined with the fundamentals of drama: catalyzing
performance. A good Lady MacBeth can give you the heebie jeebies, even
though you know that all her result will be run-of-the-mill massacre.
Shakespeare has the plot, setting and character on lock. All he needs
for midwife of terror is a gifted actress. The terror is not in the
ghosts and witches Shakespeare uses as agents and signals, but rather in
how you can recognize in his people the extremities of your own tendencies.
There are no ghosts, witches or anything quite like that at all in
The Prestige, but the writers got the plot, setting and character
finely tuned. They found one perfunctory main performance in Jackman,
one serviceable one in Bale, and happily a host of gob-smacking
brilliant supporting performances across the board. Seriously, it's as
if the casting folks said "OK we got Jackman and Bale, which shouldn't
be awful, but whom are we going to plug in to truly electrify this
spectacle?" (Electrify. Ha ha. Get it? electrify... oh, you haven't
watched the film yet? Never mind, then...) The performance of the two
leads prevents the film from being a masterpiece. True obsession
carries with it a menace of its own, and the leads are not quite capable
of marshaling that menace. They conduct themselves with the smirking
attitude of schoolboys pranking each other. Maybe the director asked
them to act cavalier. That's a legitimate way of intensifying
malevolence, but it does not suit these characters, or at least the
actors haven't pulled it off. The atmosphere is saved by those superb
supporting actors, some of whom you know and some you probably don't.
These created in their own reflection of the main characters, and in
their own smaller crimes the Lady MacBeth effect that Jackman and Bale
couldn't quite themselves manage.
The idea of the plot is to take turns shocking you with the perversity
of each of the magicians, and worse yet to have you sometimes urging one
of them on because you are so appalled at something the other had done,
and then reversing that bias. In the end, I was not readily able to
choose which set of consequenses turned out most intolerable. The film
is clearly set up to inform you who is the worst villain, but I'm not
sure I buy that part of the package. Part of my reasoning lies in three
sentences of accusation Sarah directs at her magician husband (I doubt I
have the wording just right).
You say you love me but some days you don't mean it. That makes it
more precious the days that you do.
Today you really do love me. That makes it more unbearable the days
that you don't.
I just want the truth from you. No tricks. No Lies. And no secrets.
The effect of these words at the times they are spoken, and the
rebounded effect of the words as the plot twists unfold quite haunts me.
The film sets this up to provide a mini-climax of a shock at the end,
to warm you up for the supposedly greater shock to follow. Again I
think in terms of their impact I might have had the revelations the
other way round. I can readily see enough of myself as Sarah's accused
even though her man's sins are far worse than the usual husband's
portion of occasionally tuning his wife out or forgetting an anniversary
date. The film weaves in the War of the Currents between Edison's
invention and Tesla's as another backdrop of obsession and rivalry. It
exaggerates that historical chapter in some ways and understates it in
others, but the effect for anyone who can admire the genius of those two
inventors is to underscore the accusation of the film. We all think
we're just good people working our way through life, and the film gives
you the inkling of the important question: "Are you really?" That's the
sort of reflection that you don't often get from a film these days,
which is why despite its flaws I highly recommend The Prestige.