These alter egos make sense really only in opposition to each other… It’s this same contrast that makes the film so fascinatingly self-reflexive. The grueling battle of wills between the glib parlor trickster and the grim perfectionist — each of whom resents and envies the other in equal measure — encompasses both halves of the filmmaker’s sensibility and turns The Prestige into an interestingly ambivalent directorial self-portrait.
Explicitly modelled on the pattern of a magic trick, it’s also bound to the rules of the mystery thriller genre; yet the one relies on lingering uncertainty, the other on full disclosure. And in devoting so much room to hollow romantic subplots, the film ends up breaking two of the magician’s cardinal rules: not only does it tell you how it’s all done, it takes so long about it that you’ve got time to look up its sleeves and work it out for yourself.
With his film’s finale note, Nolan attempts to flippantly justify an unresolved and exceptionally nonsensical plot point by telling his audience “You want to be fooled.” What he fails to realize, however, is that cinema’s most compelling trick isn’t simply superficial deception, but the ability to elicit emotional engagement in something that’s inherently artificial—a feat The Prestige, for all its razzle-dazzle duplicity, never pulls off.