A couple of films about magicians were released in 2006, which I’ve just got around to watching: The Prestige, staring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, and The Illusionist, with Edward Norton. Both keep you in suspense until the end, but both, to my mind, ultimately disappoint.
Why? Well, it seems to me that both violate an unspoken promise made to the viewer, about the nature of the film they are watching. In the case of The Illusionist, the magic performed by Edward Norton’s character, Eisenstein, is presented using all manner of CGI wizardry. Trees disappear, plants grow fruit before your very eyes, and ghosts walk through walls and other people. Its clear we are watching a fantasy, until the denoument, when the solution to only half the puzzle is presented in the manner of an Agatha Christie story. Its an unsatisfactory pay-off.
Meanwhile, The Prestige suffers from the opposite problem. The two rivals are very obviously of the ‘real world’ and both the magic tricks, and the wider concerns that motivate them, are grounded in reality. So, when at the very end, the unexpected payoff comes in the form of a piece of science fiction fantasy, rather than good old fashioned smoke, mirrors, and duplicity, it feels wrong. The Prestige was directed by Christopher Nolan, who also directed Bale in Batman Begins. Batman, of course, is famous for having no actual super-powers. Imagine the disappointment if he could suddenly fly like Superman.
Sometimes, breaking the rules of the story-telling process is interesting and clever, especially if you are trying to make a statement about cultural forms and norms. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet springs to mind as the obvious example of this: What starts out as some kind of teen detective caper, quickly becomes something sexually dark and disturbing. Likewise with the recent Coen Brothers offering Burn After Reading, in which a loveable character, played by a stratospherically well-know Hollywood icon, is senselessly shot in the head by accident, at an inopportune moment.
However, when the director’s intention is precisely to keep the audience guessing, I think they owe it to the audience to play by the rules of the game they have created for us.
Edgar Allan Poe outlined a formula for detective stories, which he only occasionally adhered to, but which was followed by GK Chesterton and Arthur Conan Doyle. Essentially, the story works best when the mystery is solved by the intellect of the detective (rather than, say, a freak occurrence befalling the criminal). The author leaves clues for the reader, so that the elements that the sleuth uses to solve the mystery are in plain sight (well, described on the page, at least) before the finale. If there is an unreliable narrator, a clue to this fact is also supplied. And crucially, although a fantastical explanation may be offered (ghosts, &ct) the actual solution is always within the laws of physics.
Movies that offer a riddle, a whodunnit or a howdunnit work best when they follow similar rules. The Inside Man (also 2006) and The Sixth Sense both leave a trail of clues for the viewer. Even though the latter is a fantasy, the ‘solution’ to the film is very much within the boundaries of what the director has constructed for us, which makes the payoff so delightful and celebrated. The Usual Suspects is exciting, but the fact that the narrator is unreliable means that we have no way of guessing the identity of Kaiser Soza before Bryan Singer tells us, which demeans the film, in my eyes. Another heist movie I saw recently, Ocean’s Twelve, is the biggest pile of steaming bullshit I’ve seen in a long while, precisely because none of the key moments, where the good guys out-smart the bad guy, appear on-screen. We’re just told at the the end, in flash-back, that they happened – the heist equivalent of Batman becoming Superman.