Christopher Nolan, whose Inception is released July 16, has been having one hell of a career. After challenging audiences with a cinematic Rubik’s cube in the form of Memento, and rescuing the Caped Crusader from the realm of Bat-Nipples and the Governor of California’s less than stellar acting chops with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, he’s established himself as that wonderful rarity, a director who can deliver the kind of thrills that make Michael Bay ruin pairs of underwear, all while telling a compelling story with the enough psychological insight to coax positive reviews from the critics. Not bad for a guy whose most successful movie is about a grown man who dresses up like a bat and fights an evil clown.
Most great directors have a set of trademarks that define their style, and a key example of such is the types of characters that these filmmakers keep returning to. Steven Spielberg tells tales of frightened children with absent parents, Martin Scorsese is preoccupied with guilt-ridden protagonists whose own masculine urges conflict with their greater goals, Kevin Smith only makes movies about stoners whose every conversation revolves around embarrassing sexual confessions that you wouldn’t even admit to your priest after downing twenty beers and being injected with truth serum. Hey, whatever works.
Nolan is much the same way. Already in his brief career, he has displayed a notable fascination with male heroes whose ambiguous morality stems from their obsession with some sort of personal quest, one which threatens their own sanity.
His first major release, Following, is a small independent picture that begins with the story of a down-and-out writer who follows strangers in an effort to find inspiration for a new project. Already, it’s possible to see a recurring theme of obsession and desperation, although the plot veers in a different direction as the film progresses. However, allusions to The Shining evoke reminders of Jack Nicholson’s character, a frustrated writer driven up the walls by his responsibilities.
Severely lacking in Christian Bale growling like a rabid dog at a Slayer concert, the film was well-reviewed but generally unseen.
The Memento Case:
Next up was Memento, a brilliantly conceived exercise in the craft of blowing an audience’s mind. It stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby who, aside from being afflicted with a severe case of having the kind of name that will get you beat up throughout your entire childhood, also suffers from a rather convenient type of amnesia that prevents him from storing any short term memories. The fact that Leonard is always aware that he has this amnesia, despite the fact that he would have discovered such information after being stricken with it, and would therefore be unable to remember it in such detail, is the kind of a gaping plot hole so wide that a sumo wrestler would use it as a hula hoop. The movie better be freakin’ awesome if it is going to make up for that.
Oh, but the movie is awesome, occurring in reverse chronological order and featuring a main character that is quintessential Nolan. Leonard’s wife was killed, and he is certain that there was a second attacker, who he is determined to find. Of course, solving a murder is difficult, but it is far more difficult when you can’t remember a thing and are forced to tattoo the important details onto your own body. It’s gotta be weird when one of your ass cheeks is essentially an evidence desk.
Driven by a desire for revenge, Leonard is a loner with no friends, except for Joe Pantoliano, and c’mon, who wants to hang out with him? He was such a jerk in The Matrix.
This is the kind of character that Christopher Nolan depicts so expertly. Isolated by his own personal demons, and nearly driven to madness.
Moving to Insomnia:
Nolan’s next project was an American remake of the Norwegian film Insomnia. Without giving away too many spoilers, it’s about Al Pacino contending with massive guilt while searching for a serial killer played by Robin Williams. A little hint: his guilt has nothing to do with abandoning subtle acting in favor of hoarse shouting and manic irritation.
But, once again, there’s a male protagonist imprisoned by a crippling mental burden.
The Batman Jump:
Which, of course, brings us to the Batman films. Bruce Wayne is definitely a character right up Nolan’s alley. After witnessing the murder of his parents in a dark alley one fateful night, young Bruce opts out of the traditional route, which would involve some grief counseling and maybe a little medication, in favor of the far more badass route of becoming a thief who becomes a prisoner who becomes a ninja who becomes effing Batman. The fact that billionaire playboy is his least impressive claim to fame just makes us sad.
Thankfully, Warner Bros. was willing to take the character to dark places. Originally, Bruce plans on straight-up murdering the thug who shot his parents. After adopting a more developed moral stance, he still is driven to the physical and mental limits, all out of an insatiable hunger for justice.
Sandwiched in between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (two things that it would be awesome to be sandwiched between), The Prestige also involved revenge and obsession.
Inception – More of the Same?
Inception looks to be no different. Although, on the surface, it seems to be a blockbuster where badass sci-fi stuff happens all the time, there is also a love story lurking beneath the more male-friendly elements, one which involve Dicaprio’s character’ fixation on his wife.
All Nolan needs to do now is direct an adaptation of Moby Dick, just to make it all clearer.
What do you think? Is Nolan obsessed with obsession? Is it enough for you?