In a pivotal scene towards the end of Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dominic Cobb is asked, very directly, what he feels. “Guilt” he says, as he’s confronted by his dead wife, a seeming staple of the Nolan oeuvre. It’s a literal extrapolation of one of the film’s major themes, spoken in words, naked for all the world to see, and in terms of the Beginner’s Guide to Screenwriting™, it’s the polar opposite of one of the primary ‘rules’ of cinematic storytelling – show, don’t tell. However, it’s that same literalization that forms a major part of what Inception actually is: writer-director Christopher Nolan’s $160 million art-house film, constructed as homage to the entertainment of his youth. An unapologetic experiment where he plunges headfirst into his own filmmaking psyche, visualizing everything that makes him tick as an artist, including his dead wife trope.
Understanding why this film works in its unique way requires an examination of two things: its adherence to structure, and its adherence to what can broadly be described as Nolan’s ‘typical’ approach to his characters. Adherence isn’t something normally associated with experimental filmmaking, which makes it hard to argue that it’s anything except a straightforward summer blockbuster, but it’s so derivative of both those diametrically opposed forms, weaving them together with such specificity that it almost lends itself to multilateral analysis no matter how much you do or don’t enjoy it.
The film follows the broad structure of a heist film, everything from the introduction of the protagonist’s ethos and how it ties in to the upcoming ‘big job’, to the recruitment and training, to the heightened complications within the heist itself. Its exposition, often labeled as a misfire, exists on a largely technical basis at first (Cobb explaining the rules of dream-infiltration to Ellen Page’s Ariadne) and there’s a wrench thrown into the gears of the plan at every turn, but that’s just good plotting, isn’t it? However, if these are things we’ve grown accustomed to in mainstream cinema, what is it that separates Inception from most other films that stick to the script? Perhaps it’s because it deviates in the way it adheres to formula, or what we’ve come to accept as such. Ariadne’s questioning nature not only allows Cobb to reveal the secrets of the heist to us, i.e. the very mechanics by which the film’s subsequent plot and action will soon function, but it serves to setup the film’s future obstacles by revealing Cobb’s damaged psyche and his reluctance to be forthcoming about his issues with any of his teammates.
Like many an action movie, especially those with multiple characters executing various parts of a plan, the culmination of those spinning plates has to be simultaneous, or at least appear simultaneous from an editing perspective. Since the entire film and its multi-layered dreamscape exist, quite literally, within the same shared headspace, simultaneity is weaved into its very fabric. The “kick” as a mechanism within the film exists as a moment of heightened adrenaline. A free-fall that leaves one in a state of suspended animation. Its purpose within the story is to wake a person up between dream-layers, and through various convenient explanations, it turns out that several of these “kicks” need to occur at the same time. Ergo, the entire buildup between the dream layers (the van, the hotel, the mountain fortress, the apartment) is geared directly towards rising action as it approaches a point of explosion. The great thing about editing multiple timelines is the ability to make scenes seem parallel no matter the actual timeline, but Inception almost reverse-engineers that staple of action cinema by incorporating the difference in time-passage into its very DNA. In fact, overcoming the discrepancy of parallel action is one of the characters’ main goals, and on some level, it requires a constant awareness of the editing process on behalf of the audience.
Usually, this process is entirely invisible. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker studies the complicated ways of the Jedi under Yoda’s tutelage, comes to a deeper understanding of the nature of his impending conflict, and flies half way across the galaxy to Cloud City in the time it takes for Han Solo to be betrayed and frozen in carbonite. Unless we’re to assume that Luke becomes a Jedi Master in a couple of hours (which you very well could, but why would you?) then that leaves us with a timeline discrepancy that doesn’t need to be reconciled. The reason we perceive these events as occurring simultaneously is because that’s how they’re presented, and they’re presented as such so that key moments can take place back to back, and so that the eventual culmination can occur without having to waste time showing Luke’s journey to Cloud City. Part of this structure is owed to the film’s internal logic, the idea that Luke can perceive his friends’ suffering. Perhaps what he sees is some future suffering of Han and Leia that may or may not come to pass, but the conversation about precognition happens in such close proximity to Vader actually torturing Han that it may not matter what actually takes place when. Luke could’ve envisioned it days before it actually occurred, but our perceived simultaneity of the events is what drives the plot, and it just so happens that he arrives in time for Leia to catch a glimpse of him during her escape. In Inception, the perceived simultaneity of events is the plot. Ariadne and Cobb going from the forested outskirts to the mountain fortress in the time it takes Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to get into the elevator is a conceivable reality in this world precisely because the supposed discrepancy has been reconciled. As Cobb explains to Ariadne earlier in the film, carrying out the dream-heist involves getting right in the middle of the process of simultaneous creation and perception, and that’s exactly what Christopher Nolan has managed to do with his dream action movie. He’s gotten right in between the layers of the creative process and crafted a narrative in which rooting for the characters goes hand-in-hand with rooting for the film’s adherence to formula. The heist needs to rely on parallel action scenes, each with a vastly different passage of time, and the perfect intersection of each plot-thread’s big moment needs to be intentional as opposed to happenstance. Each “kick” needs to happen at the same moment, and by making that the goal of the characters, Nolan ensures that we’re essentially rooting for all the action to crescendo simultaneously.
But wait, there’s more!
In getting around the coincidence of plot, Nolan doesn’t forego the coincidence of story altogether. When I say coincidence here, I mean the simultaneous intersection of events, like stopping the bomb exactly at 00:00:01 as another character shoots the bad guy. While the action is geared towards a very specific and simultaneous series of kicks, both for the characters and for the audience, this kick cannot occur until and unless Fischer (Cillian Murphy) reaches a point of emotional catharsis with his father. I mean, it technically can, but if it does, the entire mission will be a failure. So we’re not only rooting for all the action to reach its peak simultaneously, but for it all of it to take place at a heightened emotional moment as well. What’s more, for Fischer to wake up from the apartment layer of the dream and approach his projection of his father, Cobb needs to first sit down and confront Mal, and the one real element of happenstance built into all this is that the culmination of THAT confrontation also occurs at the same time as Fischer coming to terms with his father’s disappointment. It’s a climax comprising four moments of heightened action coupled with two emotional peaks.
Even after getting in the middle of the creative process and toying around with its reality, Nolan still finds himself at the mercy of suspension of disbelief when it comes to coincidence, and of action cinema’s inherent reliance on happenstance, for his protagonist’s moment reconciliation. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch, and there’s a certain beauty to it, but it’s the nature of that reconciliation that I find most interesting. Not when it happens, or that it happens at all, but what that eventual confrontation between Mal and Cobb really is. A confrontation of guilt itself.
As with most directors, you can trace and pinpoint a number of similarities between each of Christopher Nolan’s works. His approach to men and masculinity is a key factor, and his films have a dichotomous relationship to the idea of truth, in that each one rides the line between its very nature. Deception and false identity are used as tools by many of his antagonists, and he also sees an occasional skewing of the truth as necessary for survival. Additionally, each of his films involves a protagonist for whom emotional attachment ends up being a nadir in some way, or at least an obstacle, the overcoming of which would require anything ranging from stoic detachment, to a suppression of emotion or impulse in favour of strict dedication to duty in a very traditionally masculine sense. Oh, and we can’t forget the Dead Wives Club, can we?
The foregoing of morals and emotional attachment for the sake of dedication to what is perceived as ‘duty’ (often revenge) seem to go hand in hand with Nolan’s idea of deception, the hiding of truth and true identities to reach a similar endgoal, so it’s hard to say with any sort of certainty as to whether or not he sees either of them as an absolute solution. His reversals in The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar where his characters embrace fear and love respectively would suggest otherwise, but Inception takes place at a very specific moment in his directorial evolution, where he seems to be wrestling with his own creative process. Emotional attachment isn’t just a personal barrier here. The intrusion of emotions in Inception is an antagonistic force in and of itself, hell-bent on derailing Cobb’s methodical mission, one that demands leaving emotions at the door, and more often than not it takes the form of – you guessed it – the dead wife.
It’s impossible to pinpoint where exactly his penchant for dead spouses comes from, and while his own fears might be a good guess, it may very well have something to do with the death of Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the subsequent Bond films where 007 is either out for revenge or makes subtle mention of her. Nolan takes several action cues from Bond films in all his works, so it’s not far-fetched to assume the series influenced him in other ways too.
As opposed to a motivating factor, Mal is a representation of everything that’s holding Cobb back. Like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, and like Nolan himself to an extent, he really needs to get over the whole dead wife thing! Jokes aside though, that eventual confrontation between Mal and Cobb involves an admission of guilt, more so for the audience than anyone else, but it also acts as reconciliation. The tragic backstory of Cobb’s actions resulting in Mal’s death are something he needs to come to terms with, and he can’t do that as long as he’s keeping his wife alive in his head and constantly re-living their memories together as if she were still alive. Her death is something he buries deep down, portrayed once again quite literally in the form of a basement level, and he refuses to confront this projection of his wife, and everything she represents. She’s the guilt that’s eating him up inside. He can’t get back to his kids until he pulls of the job, but he can’t look his kids in the eye until and unless he comes to terms with his actions either. Whether or not he ‘really’ returns to them in the end, the reason he’s able to walk right up to them as opposed to all the times they turned away is because he’s finally able to lift his gaze from the spinning totem. It’s the same totem that he used to deceive Mal into being happy, something that eventually led to her death, and like his projection of her, it’s a reminder of his guilt. Every time he sees his kids in his dream, there’s a voice calling out to them from just off screen – a voice that snatches them away from him, and a voice that stops him from being happy. That voice in the back of his head is no longer there at the very end, so whether or not it’s ‘real’ in the strictest sense doesn’t matter now that he’s finally managed to come to terms with his actions.
The ending is always going to be a matter of debate for those who want some sort of factual closure, as it gnaws at their brain like an implanted idea, the spinning totem representing their doubt as it did Mal’s, but that’s not what the film is about. It’s about a man trying to come to terms with his guilt so that he can achieve some sort of inner peace…. It’s also about guns, and explosions and rotating hallways, because why the hell not? A train bursts through the middle of a Chicago intersection because Cobb’s train of thought keeps going back to his own train story and how it relates to his wife, also because that’s just a damn cool image. His subconscious is bursting with the idea of a train, so a train manifests itself and come smashing through all the cars, and why shouldn’t it? A locomotive plowing through a city street was probably on Chris Nolan’s mind, so he put it in there! And it works! It works because Inception is exactly the kind of film that can accommodate those kinds of big ideas, because the setting happens to be each character’s imagination. Things don’t just happen for the sake of happening of course, each plot turn is tied very directly into some sort of subconscious process, but elements such as the Bond-like settings (the classy hotel, the fortress similar to the mountain location in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) exist because the characters make them exists, and it’s as simple as that. Nolan wanted his movie to look like the movies that influenced him, so he constructed a plot that would allow for all those pieces to fit together, and the only justification required is imagination. His characters imagined those specific settings, suits and weapons because he did, and his justification for not making them any more ridiculous (or ‘dream-like’) than a somewhat realistic Bond movie is as simple as not wanting the dreamer to wake up. Stray too far from the established reality and dreamer’s subconscious is alerted, i.e. stray to far from the film’s intended design and the plot itself will begin to crumble.
A perfect, self-perpetuating construct that is both an original idea and a myriad of derived concepts. Kind of like a dream itself.