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 J-Horror month, 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 Screw 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 all that.
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.