By Adam Nayman
Dir. Christopher Nolan, U.S., Warner Bros.
In an interview conducted in advance of the release of Inception, Christopher Nolan deflected the idea that his new film’s ellipticism was inspired by Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. With the poised self-deprecation of a man whose last film made hundreds of millions of dollars, Nolan laughed that he hadn’t seen the film, and that he was merely “ripping off all the films that ripped it off.” Anyway, I certainly didn’t think of Resnais’ game-changer while watching Inception. The title that did spring immediately to mind was one that could not realistically have exerted any influence: Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, released to theaters earlier this year after the teaser for Inception had already set pulses racing among the crowd that thought The Dark Knight was a watershed in American cinema (which is to say: a lot of people).
On one level, this comparison is purely circumstantial. Shutter Island and Inception are both conspicuously lush big-studio movies starring Leonardo DiCaprio playing a character navigating the murky depths of his own subconscious. (Now nearly a decade past “fresh-faced,” Leo is now the A-listers’ go-to-guy for “haunted.”) But what really connects the films is the way their directors play to their respective strengths so consciously and insistently that they become weaknesses. Like so many of Scorsese’s autumnal efforts, Shutter Island is a cinephilic orgy, but the indulgence is wedded to insecurity: the guy is trying too hard. The film is basically a snake-pit melodrama populated by famous actors, and has the potential to work on those terms, but Scorsese is so worried about clarifying and sanctifying his influences (Lewton, Argento, a pinch of Lynch) that he absents his own distinctive artistic personality. Instead of feeling drenched in its creator’s blood and tears, Shutter Island ends up redolent of flop-sweat.
Nolan’s, meanwhile, is a much dryer sensibility. Since his parched but accomplished 2000 debut, Following, the British-born writer-director has been compared to Stanley Kubrick, and not because he has an awesome beard (he doesn’t). Like Kubrick, Nolan revels in the visual possibilities of remove, and is inclined to linger on agony more than ecstasy; if the director can be said to have a signature image, it’s of a tortured protagonist in the throes of devastating realization: Guy Pearce contriving a fatal errand at the end/beginning of Memento; Aaron Eckhart conceding defeat to his scars on a hospital bed in The Dark Knight; the stunned countenance of (one of many) Hugh Jackmans, dead and trapped under glass during the fiery finale of The Prestige.
The latter film—released to commercial indifference when casual moviegoers confused it with Neil Burger’s concurrent, kinda-groovy The Illusionist—is possibly Nolan’s best and surely his most underrated effort to date. Adapted from a fine 1995 novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige casts Jackman and Christian Bale as stage magicians locked in a death dance of one-upmanship at the turn of the century; it's frequently silly but surprisingly sticky in its thematics. Nolan and his fraternal cowriter Jonathan strongly altered Priest’s plotting while honoring his underlying argument that true commitment to a craft simultaneously sustains and fragments the self. If the director’s penchant for meticulously controlled showmanship loomed over the proceedings—especially in the Byzantine narrative architecture, with its frames within frames—such elevated self-regard was also arguably part and parcel with his subject.
Inception is clearly the work of the same self-styled magician, still anxious that we grasp just how cleverly he’s lined the insides of his sleeves. Reportedly written over a period of ten years, it pivots on an admittedly tantalizing premise—an espionage tale that moves through the unguarded gates of the subconscious. Yet the film has its wits frustratingly about it at all times. Nolan’s cagey, presentational style sleeps with one eye open. The filmmakers who have succeeded most spectacularly with dream imagery—Deren, Buñuel, De Palma, and those Lacanian jokesters Hitchcock and Lynch—have succeeded by finding ways to inscribe the inscrutable without fixing meanings. Even a career plodder like Wes Craven managed a moment of authentically groggy oddness when that lamb skittered through the school hallway in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The effect comes from the sense that figures and objects (and their attendant symbolic content) are entering the frame unbidden.
Nolan’s mise-en-scène is too spotless for that, though undeniably impressive in terms of scale. The images feel huge in a way that even the IMAX sequence of The Dark Knight did not (Nolan used a 65 mm lens for some scenes), and he negotiates the anamorphic widescreen space with something approaching aplomb. A few locations have a hard, crystalline unreality, like the gilded seaside hideout that houses the opening set piece, the first of many (many) “are we still dreaming?” interludes; a Parisian street that flies apart as a series of miniature detonations before doubling over onto itself; a business-class hotel with the extra amenity of gravity-free hallways. But texturally, Inception generally feels less like a reverie than a late-capitalist heist picture (Nick Pinkerton’s invocation of Olivier Assayas in the Village Voice is particularly apposite, and sets one’s mind to imagining a better version of this movie). DiCaprio’s master “extractor” Dom Cobb is a fashionably callow professional in the Michael Mann mold. Equal parts confidence man and thief, Dom utilizes advanced (and implausibly portable) technology to penetrate the mind of his sleeping victims and pluck key bits of information from the appropriate cortexes.
Form dictates that I tell you that Dom is plying this nefarious trade even further off the grid than his contemporaries because of a Dark Secret in His Past, the delayed revelation of which hangs over his elaborately planned mission to “incept,” rather than extract, a crucial bit of inspiration into the cranium of a dead industrialist’s conflicted heir (Cillian Murphy). I should also mention that this process involves the requisite putting-the-team-together foreplay, with young-old pros played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy slotted in alongside relative newbies like those embodied by Ellen Page (an architecture student with the hilariously symbolic handle of Ariadne) and Ken Watanabe (a former client turned financier). That the exercise spins out of control almost from the start—well, I don’t really need to tell you that, do I?
Except that Inception is all telling. Complaints about the film’s reliance on exposition may strike those sympathetic to Nolan’s intellectualized approach to narrative as snarky—the equivalent of faulting, say, David Cronenberg for a dearth of falling-in-love-montages. Truthfully, though, a whole lot of Inception’s screen time is devoted to Dom talking Ariadne (and, by extension, us) through the rules of subconscious espionage, pausing only for the blasting contributions of the film’s musical score (credited to Hans Zimmer, but clearly the work of the tripods from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds). I’ll grant Nolan that he made the right decision by de-emphasizing the technology (we’re never quite sure how the machines work). And the arcana he does reveal is internally consistent. But arcana, while fine as a supplement to drama, is not a substitute. And for all of its neatly embedded realities—dreams within dreams within dreams, delineated with admirable clarity by editor Lee Smith—there’s simply nothing at the film’s center.
Or rather, what’s there is boringly familiar, especially for a film with such an obvious envelope-pushing agenda. Dom is planning the inception at the behest of Watanabe’s character, Saito, a master-of-the-universe type who claims that he can offer his collaborator safe harbor in return for compelling his rival to dissolve his late father’s empire. Hanging in the balance: Dom’s relationship with his estranged children, who pop up in his dreams even when he’s on the job—as does an alternately vengeful and forlorn projection of his former wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Taken as an illustration of how the private bleeds into the professional (also the theme of The Prestige), this device is apt enough. But the imagery of domestic-paradise-lost is so prosaic—the kids crouching on the beach or playing in a sun-dappled backyard—as to short-circuit any emotional specificity.
This is especially unfortunate in a film where every character except for Dom is basically a cipher. Nolan’s lickety-split pacing makes it difficult, if not impossible, to invest in Gordon-Levitt’s taciturn point man or Hardy’s master-of-psychic-disguise beyond their status as lean, tailored graphic objects. Page is nothing more than an audience surrogate, and she’s frequently an afterthought to the action. The “inception” is just a pretense for the many-tiered action sequences: the question of whether Murphy’s character will settle his daddy issues is totally incidental (although it’s staged as a clear homage to Kubrick). And so the burden of carrying the film’s potential for audience investment falls on DiCaprio, who tries, as in Shutter Island, to underplay grief and comes off as merely irritated. If Nolan had conceived of his hero as a man whose lack of attachments facilitated his brain-trotting escapades, he would have been right in his chilled-out comfort zone, but he insists on sentiment. It’s meant to be wrenching watching Dom lose his hold on his reality when all he wants is a chance to repair it, but what he stands to reclaim isn’t sufficiently differentiated from the ersatz realm he’s fled to.
Ah, but mightn’t this tragic blurring be the point of the entire enterprise? Certainly, there’s a case to be made, exhibit A being the predictably ambiguous final shot, which will invite all sorts of freeze-frame speculation when the film is released on DVD. It’s an ending that “invites debate,” as the saying goes, provided that one cares enough about the preceding 140 minutes to muster up an argument either way. I didn't.