In 1890s London, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden work as shills for a magician under the mentorship of John Cutter, an engineer who designs stage magic. During a water tank trick, Angier’s wife Julia fails to escape and drowns. Angier, devastated, accuses Borden of using a riskier knot, causing her death. When Angier asks Borden which knot he used, Borden claims not to know. The two become bitter enemies.
Angier and Borden launch their own magic careers, with Angier working with Cutter and Borden with the mysterious Fallon. Angier sabotages one of Borden’s performances when he slips a real bullet into Borden’s pistol during a bullet-catch trick, resulting in Borden losing two of his fingers. Borden reciprocates by sabotaging Angier’s disappearing bird act,
killing the bird on stage and injuring a volunteer from the audience. Borden develops a trick he calls the Transported Man, in which he appears to travel instantly between two wardrobes on opposite ends of the stage. Unable to discern Borden’s method, Angier hires a double, Gerald Root, to perform his own version of the trick. The imitation is a greater success, but Angier is dissatisfied, as he ends the trick hidden under the stage while Root basks in the applause.
Angier has his assistant Olivia spy on Borden to learn how he performs the Transported Man. However, Olivia falls in love with Borden and becomes his assistant. With her help, Borden sabotages Angier’s act, crippling him in the process. Confronted by Angier, Olivia gives him a copy of Borden’s encoded diary. Angier acquires the keyword to decode it, “TESLA”, by threatening to kill Fallon.
The diary takes Angier to America to meet scientist Nikola Tesla, who Angier believes built a machine for Borden. Angier realizes the diary is fraudulent, created as a distraction. Tesla builds the machine for him, but instead of teleporting objects, Tesla’s machine duplicates anything placed inside it a short distance away. Tesla is driven from Colorado Springs by agents of his rival, Thomas Alva Edison, but has the machine delivered to Angier. He advises Angier to destroy it, saying it will bring him only misery.
Borden’s wife, Sarah, is driven to suicide by his contradictory personality. Borden reveals to Olivia that he never loved Sarah and that he loves her more. Tired of Borden and Angier’s feud, Olivia leaves. In London, Angier debuts the Real Transported Man using Tesla’s machine, appearing to have teleported across the theater. Borden sneaks backstage and witnesses Angier fall through a trapdoor and drown in a tank. He is discovered by Cutter and turned over to the police. Unable to prove his innocence, Borden is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
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