"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. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call the prestige."
The story follows an escalating rivalry between two magicians, Alfred Borden and Robert Angier. They started their careers as partners 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.
Told through the framing devices of the two men reading one anothers' 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.
This film is built almost entirely out of unexpected twists. You will learn them if you read any further.
- Adult Fear: A particularly painful one forms The Reveal towards the end of the film.
- Alternative Foreign Theme Song: "Returner" by Gackt was used as the theme song in the Japanese version.
- Always Identical Twins: Part of the twist.
- Anachronic Order: A Nolan trademark.
- 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.
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Nikolai Tesla 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.
- Bullet Catch: Definitely not played straight.
- 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.
- Chekhov's Gun: "I mean, someone could stick a button in there! Or, god forbid, a bullet!"
- 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.
- 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.
- Death by Adaptation: Angier.
- 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 example. While Angier is after the Transported Man trick simply because it'll make a great show, 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.
- Driven to Suicide: Borden's wife, Sarah.
- Dueling Stars Movie: Unlike some films which use this trope, the chemistry between them is excellent.
- 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 more sympathetic as Angier slips even further into revenge.
- Fingore: The malfunctioning magic trick that crushes a poor volunteer's hand, then Borden losing two fingers, and subsequently his twin brother.
- Foe Yay: Borden and Angier pretty much personify this trope. Lampshaded in the book when Olivia tells Angier that he and Borden "are like two lovers who can't get along together."
- In the movie, the words are "You should go to him. You two deserve each other."
- Foreshadowing: Both major twists at the end of the film are foreshadowed pretty subtly.
- Starting with Borden immediately grokking the fishbowl trick.
- And the pairs of birds of whom one is killed every time the trick is performed. "Today you've been the lucky one."
- Go Seduce My Arch-Nemesis: 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: Edison is hinted to be a ruthless, violent man who crushes his foes by sending Faceless Goons to their labs to destroy everything and run them out of town. Even way up in the mountains, Tesla couldn't escape his wrath.
- I Let Gwen Stacy Die: Piper Perabo's character, Julia, who drowns during a stage performance, setting Angier 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.
- It Got Worse: And then some.
- Jerkass: Borden (the one who gets hanged), and Angier's double.
- Kayfabe: Adherence to this is the reason for most of Borden's troubles.
- Lightning Can Do Anything: In this case, it can even duplicate things.
- Lovely Assistant: Olivia 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 Michael Cane 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.
- Misapplied Phlebotinum: Apparently neither Tesla nor Angier stopped to consider that a perfect matter replicator could be put to 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Obfuscating Disability: Chung Ling Soo, the ancient Chinese performer with stiff legs.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Arguably, Borden's disguises: they start out seeming very transparent and obvious until we find out that Borden had also been disguising himself as Fallon the entire time.
- Once More, with Clarity: The biggest reveal of all is accompanied by one of these.
- One-Scene Wonder: David Bowie only appears in a handful of scenes, but he absolutely nails them.
- Out-Gambitted: Both Angier and Borden time and time again. At the end though, Borden comes out on top.
- People Jars: Angier's many drowned copies of himself, stored in a warehouse.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Rival Turned Evil: Both of them. Part of the enjoyment of the movie is trying to decide who has fallen the furthest.
- Rule of Sean Connery: David Bowie and Michael Caine are in the movie for maybe 15-20 minutes each MAX, but that short amount of time is all that is needed.
- Serious Business: These people are serious about stage magic. Dangerously serious, in fact.
- Shout-Out: In the Bullet Catch scene, one of the performers on the list is "Harry Dresden".
- 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.
- Its not perfect though The women they love can tell some difference. Specifically, the wife can tell that sometimes Borden genuinely means it when he says he loves her, and sometimes he doesn't.
- Steampunk: Tesla is the poster wizard for this kind of genre.
- Stealth Pun: Tesla's assistant is named Alley. He has a cat.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- What Have We Ear?: Borden likes doing this.
- White Dwarf Starlet: The actor Angier hires to be his double is a drunken, arrogant, washed-up Shakespearean.
- A Wizard Did It: It's never described how Nikola Tesla built teleporter. He's just a genius.
- World of Cardboard Speech: Angier at the end.
- 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."