“Are you watching closely?” So beckons a disembodied voice from the darkened screen at the start of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006), a movie about the destructive rivalry between two rival illusionists in turn-of-the-20th-century London. But those same words could serve as an invocation to any of Nolan’s nine feature films—or, for that matter, any serious discussion of his career. For Nolan is the great practical magician of modern movies—a master of misdirection who always seems to be carefully, methodically telling us exactly what he’s doing, only to blindside us with his astonishing narrative reveals and reversals. Watch Nolan with your most concentrated gaze, and somehow he still manages to pull the rug out from under you. Or, he leaves the rug in place but pulls out the room instead.
Nolan is that rarest of Hollywood specimen: a brilliant technician whose technical skill is rivaled only by his storytelling acumen, and who manages to make some of the biggest movies around (in terms of both scale and popularity) without compromising any of the heady themes that have always driven him. So his three Batman movies feel every bit as personal and expansive in their vision as Coppola’s Godfather trilogy—“comic book” movies in terms of source material, but transformed by Nolan into darkly resonant studies of a society wracked by ideological extremism, class inequality, and moral weakness. And in Christian Bale’s existentially conflicted Bruce Wayne/Batman, Nolan found the ideal avatar for his fascination with the malleability of identity—an all-too-human caped crusader who is not always sure whether he is the hero or the villain of his own story.
There is a strong duality in Nolan himself, who grew up between England and America but opted for a reserved British persona (and accent), where his brother (and frequent collaborator) Jonathan went the more American route. Today, he makes billion-dollar blockbusters as if they were artisanal handcrafts, working with a close-knit creative team (including his producer and wife, Emma Thomas) and a stock company of actors (Bale, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe). And as technology has made it possible to “virtually” create anything a filmmaker might imagine, Nolan has, with magnificent stubbornness, insisted on doing things the old-fashioned way, favoring practical special effects over digital ones, and shooting his films on honest-to-goodness celluloid—that great, endangered format that counts Nolan among its most vociferous defenders.
Although it was little seen at the time, Nolan’s 1998 debut, Following, now seems a particularly instructive primer for the career to come. Poor of budget, but rich in ideas, it lays out all of Nolan’s recurring preoccupations for the sampling: the plasticity of time (the movie is told in four tenses, circumscribed by a fifth); the literal and figurative wearing of masks; a dangerous woman; an unreliable narrator. The principal antagonist is even called Cobb, the same name Nolan would later give to the Leonardo Di Caprio character in Inception (2010), and he is, like that later Cobb, a kind of cat burglar—albeit one who robs people’s apartments instead of their minds. In the most uncanny example of art anticipating art, a Batman logo can be seen fleetingly on another character’s apartment door. As if to prove that the movie’s artistry was independent of its narrative gamesmanship, Nolan later recut Following in chronological order as a DVD bonus, and it was every bit as stunning to behold.
It has sometimes been said that Nolan’s films are chilly and austere, too interested in the head and not enough in the heart. What’s true is that Nolan assiduously avoids the cheap, reassuring sentiments about human goodness that are most Hollywood movies’ stock-in-trade. But the passions in his films are as grand as the illusions, sometimes even grander. Like one of his idols, Michael Mann, he is steeped in the influence of Hollywood’s iconic film noirs, with their shadowy urban nightscapes and flinty men of action following their obsessions towards a self-destructive vanishing point. In Memento (2000), which earned Nolan the first of his three Oscar nominations, our amnesiac detective hero relentlessly forages for the identity of his wife’s killer, only to gradually realize the biggest clue is staring back at him in the mirror. In Inception—an enormous “event” movie set almost entirely inside the human subconscious—the mere memory of another deceased spouse is enough to turn entire worlds upside down and shake buildings to their very foundations; what better depiction of amour fou have movies given us? And in the recent Interstellar (2014), a movie Nolan made for his own children, he movingly suggests that the bond between a father and a daughter is as powerful a universal force as time and space themselves.
All of which brings us back to The Prestige, which strikes this critic as Nolan’s most personal—and perhaps greatest—film to date. It is, like so much of the director’s work, a marvel of scrambled chronology, with a narrative that runs along two parallel tracks, filtered through the diary entries of two authors intentionally trying to throw each other (and us) off course. But underneath all its impressive trickery lies a startling portrait of brotherhood, showmanship and devotion to one’s art at any cost. Magic is unmistakably a metaphor for filmmaking here. Watch closely, and you may just catch a glimpse of the real Christopher Nolan in its elaborate hall of mirrors.
Scott Foundas is the chief film critic for Variety.