The Prestige Ending Explained

"The Prestige," Christopher Nolan's dark and twisty tale of two warring illusionists, continues to delight and surprise viewers to this day, partly because fans still enjoy debating its fiendish twist ending. It's one of Nolan's most narratively assured films — ever the showman, it's almost as if the director somehow relates to these characters.

We've come to expect movie endings from Nolan that give us plenty to talk about, and "The Prestige" has more to chew over than most. That's because so much happens in the final act as the director reveals not one but several twists. By the end, he seems more like a plate-spinner than a magician, keeping plot points turning before the curtain comes down. There's plenty to unpack as Nolan gives us a cracking tale about obsession and revenge, laden with morbid motifs of doubles, deaths, and strange rebirths. Now, let's take a look at what happens in that crazy ending.

So, what happens in The Prestige again?

Let's try to keep this brief. Hold onto your hats.

Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two illusionists, who start out in London working as plants in the audience for another magician. A water tank trick goes disastrously wrong and Angier's wife drowns. He blames Borden, and they become bitter rivals.

As they each embark on their careers, the two men get caught up in a deadly game of one-upmanship. Angier sabotages one of Borden's tricks, resulting in Borden losing two fingers. Borden then develops a routine called The Transported Man, which Angier can't figure out.

After Angier works out a version of the trick with a body double, he's still obsessed with finding out Borden's secret. He uses his assistant to acquire his rival's diary, which takes him all the way to America to meet a famous inventor.

Isn't this the Nolan movie with David Bowie?

Borden's diary leads Angier to believe that Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) has built a teleportation device, and demands that he repeat the feat for him. He then realizes that the diary was a distraction, but Tesla invents something anyway.

Angier returns to London to unveil his new Transported Man trick, which now perplexes Borden. He sneaks backstage at a show to see Angier fall through a trapdoor into a tank of water and drown. Borden is then caught red-handed and arrested for murder. Angier has apparently gained his perverse revenge.

This is where the twists come in. And then a few more, just in case you thought you weren't getting enough twists for your money.

Borden is visited in jail before his execution by the wealthy Lord Caldlow, who is none other than Angier. To make matters worse, he has taken guardianship of Borden's daughter, since her mother committed suicide earlier in the movie. Borden goes to the gallows with his daughter in the clutches of his mortal enemy.

The movie can't end there, surely?

Nope, we're not done yet. Angier receives a visit at the theatre from Fallon, Borden's assistant, who shoots him. It turns out that Fallon is Borden in disguise — they were twins, and Fallon died in his brother's place. As he dies, Angier finally reveals his trick. Each night, the real Angier dropped into the tank and drowned while Tesla's machine created a clone nearby to lap up the applause. The theatre burns down, revealing dozens of tanks containing Angier clones.

Let's recap: Borden tricks Angier into visiting Tesla to get a teleportation machine that doesn't exist. That backfires on Borden, because Angier uses the machine that Tesla really invents to frame Borden for his murder.

Now Angier is supposedly dead, the Caldlow clone taunts Borden with his daughter before his execution. Yet Borden has the last laugh because he and his twin have been playing the same person all along, and it's his brother who was hanged instead. Although he loses his twin, he kills the final Angier clone and gets his daughter back.

One of the pleasures of "The Prestige" is watching how beautifully it all unfolds, and after several viewings it is still easy to forget exactly how it all goes down. "The Prestige" remains one of Nolan's best-loved films and also one of his most enjoyable. And that ending is one that will fuel debate for years.