We think of magic as puckish, elegant, lighter than air, but in The Prestige, an aggressively devious sleight-of-hand thriller directed by Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins), the magic, even at its most clever, is powered by currents sometimes literal ones of electricity and danger. In the Victorian age of high magic showmanship, a woman gets dunked with a violent splash into a glass tank, and it's far from preordained that she'll ever get out. A man makes a bird vanish by smashing its cage; a bullet catcher asks a ruffian in the crowd to fire a gun at him, and the trick turns out to be as hazardous as it sounds. Then there's the enigmatic silver sphere, invented by Thomas Edison's rival Nikola Tesla, that shoots off white bolts of Frankensteinian voltage, teleporting a top hat (or a person) from one place to the next. Magic or technology? Either way, The Prestige wants to fool your senses by ripping a hole in reality.
It does so with a busy, at times brutal, singlemindedness. Nolan unfurls the parallel stories of two magicians, the sleek showman Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and the brooding virtuoso of illusion Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), the two of whom start as young partners but end up as fierce competitors, trying to top each other's secrets in a fake-out to the death. The Prestige leaps around in time with dizzy abandon, a deliberate strategy to make magic seem like the most concrete, grounded thing in the movie. It works, though at the expense of giving the audience much room to breathe.
Kicking off with an apparent murder, the movie flashes back to Angier and Borden as they learn the tricks of their trade, abetted by Cutter (Michael Caine), a builder of illusionary hardware who explains the three parts of every great feat of magic: the Pledge (mundane setup), the Turn (which fashions it into something extraordinary), and the Prestige (in which the ordinary is restored with a miraculous twist). This formula of wonder comes alive as each magician lures audiences with his version of the Transported Man, in which the performer enters a door on one side of the stage only to emerge, moments later, from a door on the other side. How Borden achieves his far more amazing version is the movie's pivotal mystery.
Watching The Prestige, you may find yourself longing for a bit of the old-fashioned, streamlined trickery of The Illusionist. Nolan gives his heroes wives, plus an assistant (played by Scarlett Johansson) who becomes the spy/mistress for each man in turn, but the relationships aren't convincing; they're more like setups for illusions flesh-and-blood versions of the Pledge. The film works best on stage, where Nolan keeps your eyes popped wide in curiosity. His canniest move is to reveal the key to certain tricks, thus upping the ante on the tricks we aren't in on. Jackman, all keen intensity, and Bale, who knows how to push passion to the brink of pathology, are magnetic foils, and David Bowie makes Tesla a turn-of-the-century gentleman freak genius. The Prestige isn't art, but it reaps a lot of fun out of the question, How did they do that?