At one point, the narrator Cutter says of the audience that has just witnessed a magic trick being performed: “Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it. Because you don’t really want to know.”
The Prestige tells the story of two magicians obsessed with each other’s downfall. But at a deeper level, it tells the story of two magicians who don’t really want to know. They are so involved in the sleight of hand they are performing behind their back that they almost willfully refuse to see what lies before them.
They are also both obsessed with magic tricks. One is more concerned with the beauty of a trick, while the other is more concerned with the beauty of the performance. However, the business defines, in many ways, their world view. They both believe that there is a human hand behind the stage that knows what it’s doing, even in life. Even in death, for that matter.
The central trick (or tricks) – the MacGuffin, as it were – is one that involves a magician disappearing from one part of the stage and appearing elsewhere almost instantaneously. Does the magician use a double? Or is there really a way of doing it? More importantly, does it matter?
The story is narrated in nonlinear fashion with three separate timelines (not as confusing as it sounds, though). Not to mention a labyrinthine third act that you wonder how much was planned and how much was improvisation. There is even some science fiction, in the person of Nikola Tesla.
The movie has an intriguing start and a riveting second act that has less to do with the tricks and more to do with these people. But where it could have finished beautifully and powerfully, it chose to place plot over character. In The Prestige, instead of seeing the man appear again, you saw the machine. Pity, that.