One of the biggest criticisms lobbed at Christopher Nolan and his body of work is his lack of emotion. If you let his detractors tell it, he’s a carefully coiffed hack who traded in his early art house credibility to become a big budget, faux provocateur with a serious case of FEELS deficiency. He’s OVERRATED, they say. I say, show me the world’s most accurately “rated” director and I will show you the lackluster entirety of Renny Harlin’s filmography. Yes, Nolan is a calculating auteur. Yes, he is a man prepossessed by a predilection towards puzzlebox storytelling, intricately wound narratives and a focus on storytelling minutiae, but in what way do his films lack emotion? Sexlessness, sure, yeah, he doesn’t frame his films with his cock, no, but is that such a bad thing in a world art directed by Male Gaze? Are there really people who make it through The Dark Knight Rises, an admittedly minor work, with a dry eye? To quote George Lewis Jr, “does your heart still beat?”
BIG SPOILERS AHEAD for Inception and The Prestige.
If you feel this way about Nolan, I am not here to change your mind. I want to shed a little light on something about his work that I feel doesn’t get enough shine. Every single one of you has seen the oft-shared Facebook meme about how Inception is about filmmaking. Cobb is the director (Leo DiCaprio even looks like a handsomer, more charismatic Nolan) and Arthur is the producer, etc, etc. It’s not entirely false. If that film was just a neo-noir, sci-fi heist film metaphor for making a movie, that would be moderately impressive, but also kind of rote, right?
Really, it’s not even about Cobb. Not to me, anyway. Yes, he’s the main character and Leo runs around looking very put upon and stressed and all, sure, but his storyline is relatively ridiculous. Michael Caine could just bring his kids over to see him. Honestly. There. Boom. Done. Fast Six did a better job of convincing me that Paul Walker just “misses home” than this movie did, and that is a movie that also expects me to buy an 80-mile airline runway and Hobbs and Toretto as two heterosexual men that aren’t secretly in love. The draw of Inception, outside of all the cool, post-Matrix reinventions of heist film conventions, has zerozipfuckall to do with Cobb, and everything to do with the pinwheel Cillian Murphy pulls out of the safe during the film’s climax.
In a heist film, the characters get together to steal something. They plot and plan and conspire to take from someone for their own personal gain. In Inception, ultimately, the crew puts considerable effort into giving Murphy’s character something: a moment of his father’s love and acceptance. They do this so they can trick him into doing something that benefits the man that hired them, but isn’t there something beautiful and benevolent about a lie that tells the truth? Filmmakers lie to you to get you to buy a ticket, but you only feel conned if that two hour block feels like a waste. As Mark Ruffalo said in The Brothers Bloom, “the best con is one where everyone gets what they want.” Cobb’s crew takes, yes, but what they give is so poignant and thought provoking. Look how happy Cobb is at the film’s end! He’s able to see his family in his relatively convoluted happy ending, but it is an outcome afforded him by his art. Cobb tells a tale to a businessman and is able to live the life he wants. His work is what he does to get to spend time with his kids. That is the movie Nolan gave us: the story of a man using his skills to create the life he wants.
In Inception, the audience feels like the focus. The artist is merely the delivery system. Spielberg always said he would’ve ended Close Encounters differently if he had made it after he had kids. I don’t know the exact chronology of Christopher Nolan’s parenthood, but Inception feels the same way. The true apex of Nolan’s oeuvre falls on the other side of this coin. In The Prestige, the film focuses on the artists themselves, in this case, obsessive magicians who will sacrifice anything, including themselves, in the pursuit of changing the lives of the audience, if even for a brief moment.
Angier and Borden, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Batman’s (Christian Bale) respective characters in the film, both sabotage relationships with their families, mentors and one another in the pursuit of distracting their audience from the infinite disappointment that is real life. Borden, a more purely gifted magician, relies on his dedication to the craft and his happening to have a twin brother to create a deftly affecting trick that makes up for its lack of showmanship with a gob-smacking climax that stuns audience into fearful silence. For a passing moment, he (or, more to the point, they) is able to make his audience forget about the hardships of reality long enough to wonder if such an illusion could be possible. He fills them with awe and enriches their lives, even if the effect is fleeting. To produce the same trick, Angier has to rely on his secret fortune and the surreptitious assistance of David Bowie as Tom Skerritt as Nicola Tesla. He has to clone himself and kill the clones in order to match the natural gift Borden possesses. This man LITERALLY murders pieces of himself, just to see the look on his audience’s face. It’s a movie about magicians that is really about Michael Bay and the Coen Bros competing for our attention.
Christopher Nolan may not be too prone to melodrama, and his adherence to complicated plot driven films may lay bare continuity errors that other filmmakers would more easily get away with, but they aren’t lacking in emotion. Nolan is a man who has devoted his life to the telling of stories, and his characters, at least in these two films, show the strife and turmoil of both halves of the storytelling equation. Just imagine what this dude is going to do with wormholes in Interstellar.