"Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.
is a 2006 film, from Warner Bros.
and Touchstone Pictures
, directed by Christopher Nolan
. It was based on an award-winning book of the same name
by Christopher Priest
The story follows an escalating rivalry between two late 19th century magicians, Alfred Borden
and Robert Angier
. They started their careers as "voluntaries" to another stage magician until Angier's wife died during a performance, possibly because Borden may have tied a stronger rope knot than necessary (with the wife's permission). The rivalry extends into the magician scene as the two compete to see who is the best at their craft while sabotaging each other's acts.
Told through the framing devices of the two men reading one another's journals, the plot is not shown in chronological order.
Interestingly, the film cannot really be said to have a protagonist. Both sides are portrayed neutrally without either getting a sympathetic point of view
. This gives a different slant on a story instead of just the normal protagonist vs. antagonist story. Instead we get a story about two overly obsessed flawed men.
Also, this film has Nikola Tesla played by David Bowie
Now has a character sheet
in need of expansion.This film is built almost entirely out of unexpected twists. You will learn them if you read any further.
This film provides examples of:
- A Real Man Is a Killer: Angier is told that he needs to be willing to "get his hands dirty" if he wants to be a truly great magician, which in context meant being willing to kill doves to maintain an illusion. Borden actually does just that in an earlier trick.
- Also, when Borden is performing his bullet catch, he asks if his volunteer (Angier) is "man enough."
- Adult Fear: You have a little daughter, seven years old at the most. Imagine, years before, that you made a colossal mistake and kill the wife of your good friend, and now that friend is growing steadily more and more obsessed with getting revenge on you. Then your former friend is murdered, with you present. You are tried and sentenced to death, meaning your daughter is going to the workhouse. Until you get a lifeline - give up your most valuable secret to a rich benefactor, and he will take in your daughter and raise her. You do so...and it turns out the benefactor is the murdered man, who faked his death. That's right - your former friend has murdered you and kidnapped your daughter, where she will be in close proximity to a man who is clearly very unstable, and he's made sure you are absolutely helpless to stop it.
- Anachronic Order: A Nolan trademark.
- Alternative Foreign Theme Song: "Returner" by Gackt was used as the theme song in the Japanese version.
- Always Identical Twins: Part of the twist.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: "Lord Caldlow". It's hard to decide if the character was always this way or slowly grew into it as the years passed.
- Badass Boast: Root has his moment when he displays himself as competent to perform as a double.
Root: Yes, you'd drink, too, if you knew the world half as well as I do. Did you think you were unique, Mr. Angier? I've been Caesar, I've played Faust. How difficult could it possibly be to play the Great Danton?
- Nikola Tesla Was a Wizard: He invented a duplication machine.
- Beta Couple: In a very unusual version of this trope, Tesla/Edison for Borden/Angier. Both couples are in the same lines of work, both are fiercely competitive and at the very tops of their fields.
- And if you think about it, Alfred #2/Olivia for Alfred #1/Sarah as a straighter but still slightly off-kilter version of the trope.
- Black and Gray Morality: Have fun trying to decide who's gray.
- Book Ends: Michael Caine showing the bird trick to the little girl in both the beginning and the end. Interestingly, it's a bit creepier at the end because you know how it's done. The bird in the cage has to die.
- Or he could have used the contraption he invented.
- Bullet Catch: Definitely not played straight when Angier deliberately uses a real bullet to blow two of Borden's fingers off.
- Byronic Hero + Villain Protagonist: The magicians. And the twin that is Jess's father is the only one to be cast in a better light than the other two. The other twin is a paranoid jerkass that drives his brother's love to suicide. Angier, on the other hand, is a Mad Artist so obsessed with revenge that he's willing to clone and drown himself dozens of times just to upstage Borden.
- California Doubling for England in most of those scenes.
- A variant in the Angier storyline, as the scenes of Angier's trip to Colorado were actually filmed in Colorado, however, the town of Telluride in southwest Colorado is standing in for Colorado Springs. To be fair, Telluride has more buildings left over from the 1890s time period, compared to Colorado Springs, and it would take less work to disguise the environments.
- Chekhov's Gun: "I mean, someone could stick a button in there! Or, god forbid, a bullet!"
- Olivia tells Angier that The Transporting Man is accomplished by using a double because she found lots of disguise supplies, but that's not the real reason those supplies are important.
- Very early in the film, Borden states that he can do an astonishing trick, and that nobody else can do it. Revealing the reason why nobody else can do it would be a major spoiler.
- Clarke's Third Law / Magic from Technology: Tesla's machine. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from stage magic.
- Classically Trained Extra: Angier's double. The one from before he starts using clones.
- Cloning Blues: Angier's clone is a perfect replica in every part from clothes to memories, created instantaneously. Of course he thinks he's the original, all the way until the next performance when he clones and unwittingly drowns himself.
- Creepy Monotone: Tesla played by David Bowie.
- Cycle of Revenge: A vicious one, at that.
- Darker and Edgier: Both Angier and Borden were considerably more sympathetic in the book.
- Angier's new show after his return from Colorado is far grimmer than his original Large Ham performance as The Great Danton. He even does the trick that killed Julia.
- Death by Adaptation: Angier.
- Death Is Cheap: Especially when you have a cloning machine in your basement.
- The Determinator: Angier and Borden. Angier killing himself several times is just psychotic, particularly since he never knows whether he'll be the man on the stage or the man in the box. Borden is nearly as bad, willing to have two of his fingers severed just to keep matching his twin.
- Doing It for the Art: In-Universe, Angier is after the Transported Man trick simply because it'll make a great show, while Borden wants to try and push the limits of the art of magic. Arguably, the whole movie could be seen as a debate on the nature of art in general.
- Also present in the book where Borden's disgust at Angier is fuelled by Angier being paid for spiritism sessions. Borden hates that Angier pretends to have supernatural skills because it's disingenuous but also because it undermines the actual skills needed for the illusions.
- Driven to Suicide: Borden's wife, Sarah.
- Dueling-Stars Movie: Unlike some films which use this trope, the chemistry between Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale is excellent.
- Mr. Fanservice: Oustanding performances aside, it doesn't hurt that the two leads are played by the not entirely unattractive Jackman and Bale, with Bowie on hand too.
- Even Evil Has Standards: When Borden ( the jerkassy one that loves Olivia) sees Angier drowning in the box his first reaction is to break the glass and yells at Angier to hang on.
- Evil Will Fail: The more absorbed the dueling magicians become in their vengeance-fueled-rivalry, the more their lives fall apart, until finally Angier's ingénieur abandons and betrays him when he crosses the Moral Event Horizon.
- Face Heel Double Turn: Angier starts out with the audience's sympathy after his wife dies and Borden just seems to be a Jerkass. But as the film goes on we start to see Borden become the sympathetic one as Angier slips even further into revenge.
- Fingore: Borden jamming Angier's harmless bird cage trick, causing a poor volunteer's hand to get crushed, then Borden losing two fingers, and subsequently his twin brother.
- Foreshadowing: Both major twists at the end of the film are foreshadowed pretty subtly.
- Starting with Borden immediately understanding the fishbowl trick, and the elaborate lie behind it.
- And the pairs of birds of whom one is killed every time the trick is performed. "Today you've been the lucky one."
- Sarah telling Borden, "Some days, you love magic more than me."
- Borden telling Olivia, "Part of me loves Sarah."
- Borden forgetting that he promised to take his daughter to the zoo (it was actually his twin).
- Sarah noting that Borden's bandaged hand is bleeding more than it should be (it's his twin, who cut off his own finger to replicate Borden's injury).
- Genre Shift: It's a Victorian Period Piece about two stage magicians with a bitter rivalry...until we see Nikola Tesla's cloning machine, and it becomes Steampunk science fiction.
- Go Seduce My Archnemesis: Angier to Olivia. One of the first obvious signs that the two are willing to go to extreme lengths to try and defeat each other.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Thomas Edison is hinted to be a ruthless, violent man who crushes his foes by sending Faceless Goons to burn down their labs and run them out of town. Even way up in the mountains, Tesla couldn't escape his wrath.
- Edison did order a disinformation campaign against AC which involved killing animals and lobbying.
- I Let Gwen Stacy Die: Piper Perabo's character, Julia, who drowns during a stage performance, setting Angier, and also Cutter initially against Borden.
- Insufferable Genius: Borden's a fantastic magician, he's just a terrible performer.
- In the novel it's the other way around, with Borden pointing out several times that Angier just didn't understand showmanship. Angier also trolled magician trade publications early in his career.
- Jerkass: Borden (the one who gets hanged), and Angier's double, Root.
- Kayfabe: Adherence to this is the reason for most of Borden's troubles.
- Lightning Can Do Anything: For Borden's trick the electricity is just for show, but Tesla got it to duplicate things.
- Lovely Assistant: Olivia Wenscombe is this to both of the stage magicians involved (and has affairs with both of them). Angier's wife was also this.
- Mad Artist: Angier shows more traits than his rival. In the end he explains that the magic shows' main point (and all that it implied) was to puzzle the audience and be considered the best magician ever. Judging from his popularity it was a complete success, but the price he paid was very high.
- Magical Realism
- Magicians Are Wizards: Subverted: the movie explains every trick, and at one point Cutter snaps "You're a magician, not a bloody wizard! If you want to do magic, you've got to get your hands dirty." Perhaps more specifically, Tesla is the wizard, having created Angier's cloning device.
- Meaningful Name: Rosalyn and Marilyn Borden were twin actresses who had numerous Hey, It's That Guy! roles between The Fifties and The Eighties, meanwhile, Alfred Borden is revealed to be two identical twins at the climax
- Misapplied Phlebotinum: Apparently neither Tesla nor Angier stopped to consider that a perfect matter replicator could be put to many more benevolent and/or lucrative uses than a stage performance.
- Perhaps, though Tesla didn't get a chance to replicate gold because it was technically Angier's machine after financing its completion, and Angier only cared about the show.
- the machine doesn't seem to replicate metal. The chain holding Alley's cat in the machine doesn't get duplicated. And Angier takes off his ring before the trick.
- Well then, that might have some negative effects on the perfomer's metabolism like, say, instant death.
- Plus, Edison's hired thugs destroyed everything at Tesla's lab, and would've destroyed the prototype if it hadn't already been shipped. Even if Tesla hadn't decided the device was evil, he might not have been able to re-create it; the film even demonstrates how hard it was to create, with Angier's top hats being replicated way off in the forest instead of in the lab as planned which was only discovered after Alley's cat was copied.
- Nested Story: Borden reading Angier's journal, about Angier deciphering Borden's journal.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In the book, Borden shuts off the power to Angier's machine while the latter is in the midst of the In A Flash act. This effectively creates a ghostly version of Angier who is seemingly immortal and more vengeful than before.
- Noodle Incident: The first time Angier shows his version of The Transported Man to the theater owner, the stunned owner starts talking about how rare it is to see real magic, and that he hasn't seen it happen since... well, whatever this thing was that he was going to say when Angier cut him off.
- Obfuscating Disability: Chung Ling Soo, the ancient Chinese performer who hides the strength required to accomplish several of his tricks by always pretending to be a cripple with stiff legs in public.
- Once More with Clarity: The biggest reveal of all is accompanied by one of these.
- Out-Gambitted: Both Angier and Borden time and time again. At the end though, Borden comes out on top. (Well, one of them, anyway.)
- Oh, Crap: There are several.
- During Angier's on-stage performance of his disappearing birdcage trick, when two volunteers come up to assist, when Angier realizes too late that one of them is actually a disguised Borden.
- Paper-Thin Disguise: Averted: That Root is the body double for Angier's transported man trick is something Borden can clearly see through.
- People Jars: Angier's many drowned copies of himself, stored in a warehouse.
- Playing God: Angier creates life
- Powered by a Forsaken Child: Tesla knows how twisted his teleporter is, and even tries to warn Angier by letter after it is delivered to him.
- Red Herring: Angier spends a great deal of time deciphering his way through Borden's journal for his secrets, only to find a message from Borden near the end, which explains how he just got him to waste months deciphering nothing.
- The Reveal: The secrets to both Borden's and Angier's Transported Man tricks. Angier was replicating himself using one of Tesla's machines, then killing his clones by locking them in his water tank. Borden secretly has an identical twin who shares his identity with him.
- Rival Turned Evil: Both of them. Part of the enjoyment of the movie is trying to decide who has fallen the furthest.
- Serious Business: These people are serious about stage magic. Dangerously serious, in fact.
- Shout-Out: During Borden's Bullet Catch scene, one of the performers on the list is one Mr. Harry Dresden.
- Sibling Yin-Yang: Downplayed with the Borden twins. We don't see much of them as individuals, but one is a family man who loves Sarah, and recommends just letting the rivalry with Angier die. Meanwhile the other is more aggressive, loves Olivia and sneaks into Angier's performance to learn how he performs "The Transported Man".
- Single-Minded Twins: "Borden" is actually a pair of twins who have made it their life's work to be so identical to each other that no one can tell the difference. The one flaw in their arrangement is that they fall in love with different women.
- It's not perfect, though: The women they love can tell some difference. Specifically, Sarah can tell that sometimes Borden genuinely means it when he says he loves her, and sometimes he doesn't.
- Steam Punk: Tesla is the poster wizard for this kind of genre.
- Stealth Pun: Tesla's assistant's name is Alley. He has a black cat for a pet. An alley cat.
- The title is unnervingly close to the word "prestidigitation", meaning sleight of hand or magic. The Other Wiki denies a shared etymology, but the phonetic similarities are obvious.
- Super OCD: Tesla's obsessions.
- Technician Versus Performer: A key thematic element of the rivalry between Borden (the technician) and Angier (the performer). There's also a bit of this between Angier and his double (whose drunken antics have quite the theatric touch) There are hints that the two Bordens differ on this as well—one is a technician, the other more or less along for the ride.
- Teleporters and Transporters: The rivalry is focused around who can pull off this magic trick most convincingly. Tesla creates a literal one, except it turns out to actually be a matter replicator.
- This Cannot Be!: One of the characters in the end, and arguably the viewer on first watching.
- Title Drop: Professional magicians see their art as three stages; the "pledge", the "turn", and the "prestige".
- Tomato Surprise: Borden and Fallon.
- Trick Twist: The movie is practically riddled with them.
- Twin Switch: Angier and his double, Root. And the Bordens, identical twins who swap roles, and the Fallon disguise, without anyone knowing. It works better since with the Borden twins, and with Angier and Root, Jackman and Bale are Acting for Two.
- What Have We Ear?: Borden likes doing this.
- "World of Cardboard" Speech: Angier at the end.
- White-Dwarf Starlet: Angier's double, Root is a drunken, arrogant, washed-up Shakespearean.
- A Wizard Did It: It's never described how Nikola Tesla built a cloning machine. Let's just leave it at he's one hell of a genius.
- Xanatos Gambit: Angier killed himself dozens of times so that when Borden inevitably made it backstage, he could be framed for murder on circumstantial evidence. Whether he's the man in the box or the man outside, Borden goes down. However, Angier didn't know Borden had a twin who could avenge him, then take back his daughter. Incidentally, this turns his Xanatos Gambit into a Batman Gambit which was, adequately enough, pulled off by Batman himself, Christian Bale.
- Also qualifies as a Thanatos Gambit for the Angier clones that end up as the "man in the box."