"Are you watching closely?" asks the narrator of Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" as the camera prowls amid a large collection of black top hats incongruously spead across a forest floor. The meaning of this image, like much else in this tricky, twisting tale of rival magicians at the end of the 19th century, won't become clear until the end of the tale. Nolan, a deft sleight-of-hand artist himself, practices what he preaches: like many magic tricks, his film is built on misdirection: getting you to watch one hand closely, so that you don't see how the other hand pulls the rabbit out of the proverbial hat.
Whether Nolan is working on independent brain-teasers like "Memento" or mainstream blockbusters like "Batman Returns," his movies share a dark brooding mood, a chilly emotional climate and protagonists (you can't really call them heroes) defined by their obsessions. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) fit snugly into his gallery of the grim, haunted and determined. Two Londoners ambitious to make their names as magicians, they start out in their trade as friends, if unlikely ones. Angier is sophisticated, upper class, extroverted—a natural showman. The working-class Borden is as clenched as a fist, bullishly determined to master his trade and advance in the world. A tragic event, the death of Angier's wife (Piper Perabo) in a magic act gone wrong, turns them into enemies. Borden tied the knot around her wrists from which she could not escape, leading to her drowning. Was it an accident, or by design? Borden himself doesn't know.
The movie charts their escalating war, but it's not constructed as a straightforward chronology. Nolan and his talented screenwriting brother Jonathan, working from Christopher Priest's novel, loop backward and forward in time, shuffling their deck to reveal their wild cards at unsuspected moments. One moment we are in a London jail, where Borden is being held for the murder of his rival. Another we are with Angier in Colorado Springs, where he is going to seek out the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla (played with regal slyness by David Bowie) to implore him to build a machine capable of "real magic" for the crowning achievement of his act. And then we leap back to the escalating competion between the two men.
Part of the fun of "The Prestige" is getting a glimpse of the secrets of the trade. Michael Caine plays Cutter, a veteran designer of illusions, who builds the contraptions that facilitate Angier's deceptions, such as making a bird disappear before our eyes. (Who knew how many doves had to die to amuse a Victorian audience?) Angier also takes on a new replacement for his wife (Scarlett Johansson), who shares the stage with him, and then his bed—until he sends her off to spy on Borden, desperate to discover how he pulls off his most astonishing trick, disappearing into a door at one side of the stage and then instantly reappearing at the other. Johansson, in danger of overexposure, doesn't make a deep impression here. Far more intriguing is Rebecca Hall as Borden's loving but troubled wife, who can't fathom her husband's mercurial moods: one day he loves her, the next he seems indifferent, buried in his obsessive pursuit of magical perfection.
Nolan shares his protagonists's cool intensity. He's the rare Hollywood director who isn't concerned with making his heroes likeable. For some audiences, who like to have a clear rooting interest in their stories, this might be a drawback: here you may find your sympathies (such as they are) shifting back and forth. We don't warm to Borden and Angier, nor should we: they are men deformed by their obsessions. This is a thriller aimed more at the cerebrum than the solar plexus.
Bale, who has no vanity as an actor, is scarily good as a man who "lives his act." Jackman gets to enjoy himself doubly, playing both Angier and a drunken doppelganger named Boot whom Angier hires to deceive the audience. Magic acts are built, we're told, into three acts—the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige—which the movie tries to duplicate with its complex, triple-time-scheme narrative. At the end of this dark entertainment three twists await: one you will certainly see coming, another you may have figured out just before it happens, and the final may be so tricky you won't quite piece it all together until after you've left the theater (the "explanation" whizzes by so fast it can be hard to catch.) Take the movie's first words to heart: watch closely. You'll be well rewarded.