Christopher Nolan opens The Prestige with voiceover from Michael Caine informing us that “every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts.” Here, the use of the word “acts” seems to be very deliberate, as traditional film narratives consist of three acts. Nolan is a master of narrative. His structures often seem a little unconventional since he loves non-linear storytelling, but all of his films adhere to the basic principles of a three act structure. However, Nolan loves to switch things up at the end of the third act.

More often than not, Nolan throws us a curveball as we near the end of act three. Traditional film narrative calls for the third act to be dedicated to the film’s resolution. Usually, the hero conquers the problem introduced at the end of act one, and all loose ends are neatly tied. Nolan always has a resolution of some sort, but he frequently introduces a new problem at the end of the third act. He adds another plot point which would lead into a fourth act, but the fourth act doesn’t exist. We cut to black without knowing the outcome of the new problem. This ambiguity allows Nolan’s films to linger in our minds long after the credits roll. There is no neat and clean resolution for us to have closure. He leaves us shocked and unsure, desperate for more information. I’m not sure that any current filmmaker has a better grasp of narrative than Christopher Nolan. His approach to storytelling is confident and he knows how to use our expectations against us. And in doing so, he crafts endings that are truly magical.
Christopher Nolan is undoubtedly one of today’s most exciting filmmakers. Learn more about this contemporary auteur, with pieces like Christopher Nolan: The Pros and Cons of a Prestige Filmmaker, The Three Acts of Christopher Nolan, and Their Favorite Films: Christopher Nolan. Plus, read about the superhero movie trend that Nolan started, learn about Nolan’s trusted cinematographer, Wally Pfister, and take it back to 2008 with our retrospective on “The Dark Knight.”