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On Second Viewing: The Magic of Christopher Nolan

Borden: He came in to demand an answer and I told him the truth. That I have fought with myself over that night, one half of me swearing blind that I tied a simple slipknot, the other half convinced that I tied the Langford double. I can never know for sure.

Sarah: Do you love me?
Borden: Not today.

Borden: See? He’s fine.
Boy: But where’s his brother?

Even lines of dialogue as seemingly minor as these make revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige a deeply rewarding experience. Movies that lean too heavily on a Twist Ending–The Sixth Sense, for example–usually pepper the narrative with little hints and clues–such as the fact that Bruce Willis only ever directly interacts with Haley Joel Osment–that only become apparent upon subsequent viewings. But few storytellers are quite as subtle or crafty as Nolan. To re-watch one of his films is to realize that every word, every action is thematically important, indispensable; each scene crackles with new meaning–and renewed urgency.

Think back to Harvey Dent’s ominous words in The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Nolan ends with the obvious payoff: Batman takes the blame for both Dent’s death and the murders he committed as Two-Face, becoming the villain so that Harvey can die a hero.

Flash forward eight years, to the events of The Dark Knights Rises: a physically and emotionally battered Bruce Wayne, living in self-imposed exile, has seen his symbol of hope and justice demonized by the citizens of Gotham City. By the end of the movie, he has come out of retirement, built himself into a better crime fighter, and saved his beloved city from utter annihilation. Thus, The Batman finally claws his way to the opposite extreme, redeeming himself in the eyes of the public and ultimately “dying” a hero.

Just the sort of delightful magic trick you’d expect from the man who dreamed up The Prestige.

[Originally written September 26, 2012.]

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