WARNING: Contains Spoilers for Inception, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Insomnia and Memento
Christopher Nolan might just be the most important filmmaker working in North America today. That isn’t to say that he is necessarily the best; apart from the sheer impossibility of quantifying such a statement about any one individual, the most significant - certainly the most popular - artists of any given time, are rarely those that produce the finest work. Fortunately, in the case of Nolan, we have a director that most will agree can easily be ranked among the best of present times (particularly with regard to his brand of filmmaking) and what is remarkable is his virtually unblighted, frankly meteoric ascent to the upper echelons of Hollywood with a succession of films that have been anticipated by audiences that stretch far and wide, whilst at the same time experimenting with a style and sensibility that challenges, moves and entertains in a manner that has become all but moribund in mainstream cinema. With his latest film Inception proving to be one of the biggest box-office hits of the year, dazzling audiences with its mind-bending premise and quicksilver action, one may wonder how this director has gone from the struggles of piecing together a 16mm black-and-white debut on the fringes of even the outermost indie circles, snatching shots on the weekends around London, to the epic – and literal – height and scale of the IMAX screen with this globe-trotting thriller that could only be realised with the very best that modern technology and the deepest pockets of Hollywood’s moneymen. For a filmmaker with a predilection for stories that revolve around puzzles, perhaps his greatest trick has been to capture the imaginations of a generation of movie-goers that have become used to leaving their minds at home, or at the very least on auto-pilot, when visiting the cinema and at this moment in time (a notion that Nolan above all others would be the first to argue is as elusive as it is indefinable), sits triumphantly atop a system that engendered that very complacency.
Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker who has fought throughout his career to strike a balance between personal obsessions and commercial interests in order to secure financing and support for his work, famously decreed that a director has to be a ‘smuggler’, particularly when operating within the studio system. His theory is based upon the idea that there are few opportunities in films that allow for the expression of different sensibilities, offbeat themes, political commentary or original thought when there is an army of executives peering fastidiously over your shoulder and you bear the responsibility of enticing, and then satisfying, the millions of paying customers into theatres that you need to justify the investment often required. In times gone by, directors would gravitate toward the world of the B-movie where they could exercise greater authorial control on projects that were more conducive to experimentation and innovation than the more expensive prestige pictures. Genre films, especially those that came from the pulpy likes of crime, sci-fi or horror, were looked down upon, usually cheaper and allowed their directors to transform routine material into something much more personal by virtue of unusual stylistic touches or the inclusion of recurring motifs that may signify a unique and unifying viewpoint at play behind the work. Nowadays, with the B-movies seen as the tent poles upon which the studios hang their highest commercial hopes, filmmakers look to the indie world; the common factor being where there is less money at stake there is more freedom. Many directors struggle with the dilemma of how to function amidst the restrictions of such an arrangement and still manage their careers without relinquishing artistic integrity. Scorsese, for one, has often resolved to ‘do one for them, one for me’ as a means of pursuing loftier projects of personal import. Steven Soderbergh, one of Nolan’s contemporaries and vocal advocate of his work, has employed a similar tactic over much of the last decade, switching from the commercially geared Ocean’s Eleven to one of the more intellectually and philosophically satisfying science-fiction films of recent times with Solaris. But Nolan has taken a different and arguably riskier approach - he has become a ‘smuggler’ in plain sight.
All of Nolan’s films are rooted in the existential crises of conflicted male figures struggling with the slippery nature of identity, in worlds where time and space are prone to shift precariously and unpredictably, as apt a preoccupation for a millennial filmmaker as any. His protagonists are haunted by memories that simultaneously spur and immobilise; they define their loves and their hatreds, their hopes and their fears, the sheer essence of their being. Nolan’s leads are very much like sharks; they must keep moving forward at all times, driven by their respective need to ‘get the job done’ - avenge a death, catch a killer, save a city, out-perform a rival, return to home – there is little self-analysis in Nolan’s pictures, and if present at all is usually incorporated into the role of the secondary characters who attempt to proffer their opinions to the protagonist, an action which invariably ends in failure and frustration. The central characters’ goals are simple and elemental, borne out of primal emotional need. In many respects, his characters are not that complex and that his films feel as complex as they do has more to do with their non-linear narratives, labyrinthine construction, and unflagging pace that offers little time for the audience to deconstruct events whilst viewing. Is it perhaps intentional that the overriding paradox of a body of work noted for its varied conundrums is that beneath the intricately convoluted surface lies a set of simple stories and simple men that strike at the heart of basic human impulse? This would certainly go some way toward explaining the universal appeal of films that otherwise stretch viewer attention much further than the perceived collective powers of concentration can typically process. In script writing, it is commonly recognised that a film is built from three primary constituents; script, narrative and character. Individually, they can be either simple or complex, but if all three are simple then the film may feel underdeveloped or unsatisfying in its slightness. If all three are complex then the film may feel overburdened or overloaded and it becomes increasingly difficult for the audience to focus on nuance or meaning. They key to Nolan’s success would appear to lie in providing two-parts complexity with one-part simplicity, with character often representing the latter.
What emerges is a portrait of man cast adrift in a world where nothing is certain and reality is often an abstract concept, forever in flux. The fact that all cling to selective memories with such resolve indicates that for this director the only thing in this world that is real is what we decide to accept into our conscience. Actuality is far less important than the way in which we absorb, interpolate and remember, and it is this ‘created reality’ that truly matters. People, objects, events are all swallowed up by the world – and faster than we can ever keep up with. What is left is memory and what is an individual if not a summation of their memories? Taking this train of thought further, an individual is the summation of the memories they choose to prioritise and manipulate in accordance with their own desires – in short, we choose who we are and what we believe. Though Nolan’s Batman movies remain his most commercial projects, the duality of Batman/Bruce Wayne would seem to crystallise this key assertion as Wayne explains to man-servant and co-conspirator Alfred; “As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting”. The physical evidence of being can only ever be fleeting; sovereign power in the Nolan universe belongs to the internalisation of all experience and it is solely in the mind and the heart where any sense of permanency or equilibrium can ever be found. Over the course of his seven feature films, Nolan has returned to this central theme time and again and whether in the form of a low-budget spin on neo-noir or in the guise of a high-concept blockbuster, he has managed the enviable task of maintaining a compelling through line that characterises each work, deconstructing and re-examining the psyche of these men whilst at the same time refining and varying a personal style noted for its bold experimentation with temporal shifts, solipsistic perspectives and fractured approach to narrative. As such, it would seem fitting that in order to assess these films, we will commence at the end and work our way back to the beginning.
Inception is arguably the purest distillation of the director’s proclivities and could quite possibly come to be seen as the quintessential Nolan work (indeed, this the first film since is his debut that is a completely original screenplay not based on other source material). There are a number of common thematic links that seem to have found a natural apex here and the character of Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) would appear to be an amalgam of all of the previous Nolan protagonists, teetering on an emotional and psychological brink whilst clinging to what he believes is still real in the world around him. Ostensibly based around a metaphysical heist, Cobb is an outlaw who trades in a new line of corporate espionage having devised a way to infiltrate a person’s subconscious and steal valuable information. When he is tasked with planting an idea rather than extracting one in exchange for the opportunity to return to America where his two children wait for him, the film’s dramatic tension is ratcheted up through the prism of a classic noir-ish ‘one last job’ from which success or failure will determine the fate of the conflicted ‘hero’. As with Memento, the catalyst for all that unfolds is traced back to the loss of the main character’s wife but where that film’s amnesiac lead, Leonard Shelby, was more concerned with vengeance, Cobb is seeking redemption and as he and his assembled team descend into the various levels of dreamscape Nolan designs, it is his own demons that threaten to overwhelm the mission and prevent them returning to the waking world, the memories of the dead are what both drives the character and what threatens to destroy him. With the exception of several flashback sequences that gradually reveal the mysterious tragedy of Cobb’s past and his culpability in the events that led to him living on the run, the film is essentially told in a straightforward fashion but fractures the momentum by cutting between up to four different states of dreaming, each simultaneously moving forward alongside one another but where time elapses at sequential rates of acceleration. The interchanging between these four levels – a rain-soaked cityscape, a luxury hotel, a snowy military fortress and a purgatorial limbo – creates a breathtaking fusion of parallel action and suspense, with each furious race against time unfolding within another race against time. It is, in many respects, both the ultimate thriller and the most overt rendering yet of Nolan’s obsession with the pliable construction of reality. Indeed, the film's tantalising final shot throws the credibility of all that we have just seen into question. Audiences were left to debate the validity of the ending and repeat viewings suggest there are further instances throughout that blur the line between where the 'real' world ends and the various dream worlds begin. Perhaps what is most important though is not what we can know for certain but what the character believes and through the tribulations of the film he has cathartically broken through to a place where he can go home and live at peace. Whatever has or hasn't actually transpired, the fact that he can leave his totem - the spinning top - pivoting on its axis is more significant than whether or not it falls; he has chosen to believe what reality he will now exist within, eerily echoing the decision of Leonard Shelby who conditions himself to live in the ignorant bliss of a romantic quest to avenge his wife by dedicating himself to an unsolvable puzzle, the only thing from which he can derive meaning or purpose. The main difference between the respective climaxes of Inception and Memento then is the choices taken by the protagonists in light of finally confronting their individual crimes; Cobb chooses to forgive himself where Leonard chooses not to forgive and continue on a path of self-destruction.
With The Dark Knight, Nolan returned to Gotham City and picked up right where he had left off three years earlier with his successful reinvention of the Batman franchise. Instantly acclaimed as the finest comic-book movie to date, this sequel gripped the public imagination by building upon the good will earned by a predecessor that had rescued the character from the neon grotesquery into which it had plunged during the 1990s under the questionable guidance of Joel Schumacher, and the whirlwind of interest created by the untimely death of the talented Heath Ledger, an unexpected casting choice of an actor who was only really just coming into his own in the pivotal role of Batman’s iconic nemesis, The Joker. The film improved upon the earlier instalment in virtually every way possible; the action was both larger in scale, more imaginative in design and clearer in its execution, and the drama was heightened by raising the stakes on a personal level and taking the main character beyond the trauma of the loss incurred by the murder of his parents, the principal turning point of the mythology covered in the first film, to a place far darker and fraught. There is no sense here of a director resting on past laurels and though the film represents his most linear and conventional effort, this is Nolan’s most political film, using the vast canvas to tackle head on the ideological battle that has come to divide the USA in the last decade. Reflecting the crisis that engulfed the nation in the wake of 9/11, Batman is driven outside the bounds of measures deemed appropriate either by society or his own strict moral code to combat a force of chaos and destruction with no apparent governing reason. As a result, the film had the dubious honour of being embraced by both the left and the right; conservatives saw the resorting to tactics both unethical and unlawful as a justified means of countering an immediate threat, with staunch Republicans even going so far as to draw parallels between Batman and then-President George W. Bush, whilst liberals concluded that by straying from the path and neglecting the creed at the centre of democracy that the character – like America – had condemned himself to the ranks of the hunted, forever to live in the shadows from that point forward. Recent revelations in the former President’s biography concerning the sanction of water-boarding suspected terrorists, a process that involves simulated drowning, is arguably comparable to Batman’s savage beating of the Joker during an interrogation. It has long been upheld that torture is not only morally reprehensible but also a completely unreliable method of extracting information, and we see this reflected here as the information gained during the Joker’s brutal questioning proves to be not only inaccurate but actually turns out to be disinformation designed to trick Batman. In a supremely bitter twist of irony, Nolan presents The Joker as the reaction to Batman’s action; without one the other would not exist, the implication being that the bloody-mindedness of Batman’s crusade against an enemy often lacking in tangible form – crime as a fluid concept capable of taking many incarnations – has produced a monster unimagined in even the worst nightmares, inviting comparisons with the War on Terror. The film ends ambiguously, celebrating the hollow victory achieved by Batman’s recourse to a final maelstrom of violence and invasion of personal liberties, just as it indicts him by banishing him from the city he has just saved.
The Prestige, a tale of obsessive one-upsmanship between two competing magicians in turn-of-the-century London, is possibly the most personally revealing of Nolan’s films and provides a fascinating glimpse into what fortifies the will to create and entertain. It makes sense that a director, especially one who delights in trickery and sleight of hand, should be drawn to the world of magic. All cinema is, in the end, an art form based entirely upon illusion; the ability to gain an audience’s trust, sell them on a conceit, persuade them to suspend disbelief, often against natural impulse, and solicit a specific reaction lies at the heart of the director’s function. Viewers came to The Prestige knowing full well the tendency of this filmmaker to pull the rug out from under them; they came because they wanted to be fooled and Nolan’s assertion that they “watch closely” – the very first words spoken in the film and directly to the audience, an opening gambit of the kind of audacity that only comes with the total confidence of an artist operating in the full belief that he will proceed to captivate, mislead and surprise – only heightened the anticipation of the eventual reveal. The marquee trick around which the competition between Robert Angier, or The Great Danton to give his stage name (Hugh Jackman, in a career-best performance) and Alfred Borden, or The Professor (Christian Bale, reuniting with Nolan after landing the role of Batman), is the Transported Man, an apparent act of teleportation by which a man vanishes and then re-appears in another space beyond the recognisable limitations of either time or gravity. Unable to fathom his opponent’s methodology, Angier deploys a double. Requiring all of his finely-honed skill and showmanship to appropriately set up the grand finale to his sell-out act, Angier must drop beneath the stage at the crucial moment and it is his doppelganger who appears to the standing ovation that subsequently brings down the house. As Angier raises his arms in mock appreciation of the crowd he cannot see from the bowels of the theatre, illuminated by the stark sheaths of light that penetrate the stage platform, Nolan beautifully captures a defining image of an artist who must remain in the dark, out of sight of the very audience he has held tightly in his grip and now released with precision to rapturous joy. The magician and the director have become one and the same.
But there is, perhaps, another key link between the magic trick and the film, and all of Nolan’s films for that matter. The mechanics of the illusion are often similar to those of the plot and only work within the obfuscated parameters devised by their creators. When the various twists are revealed, Nolan is careful to ensure that all of the elements that went into disguising the truth and heightening the drama can be pieced back together, but this must assume that the audience continues to linger under the spell of the conceit. When one removes virtually any of the films’ premises from the context in which they are presented, the appliance of rudimentary logic quickly threatens the validity of everything depicted, whether that be the fantastical origins of dream-sharing, the nature of dressing up in black rubber to fight crime, the exaggerated science behind a magic trick or the impossibility of existence without sleep or short-term memory. Nolan’s genius, if that is in fact the right term, may then also lie at the centre of his one discernible weakness: the inability to put on screen that which can exist beyond the screen. Everything in the film is, first and foremost, a cinematic construct and his greatness can be most readily identified in the sublime way he arrests our instinct to question, persuading us to believe in the ‘reality’ of these ideas and stories so that we can, again and again, be fooled. That he has successfully done this can be attributed in large part to the emotional ‘truth’ that we recognise in each of his protagonists and where we are able to identify a common longing, loss or dread we are always likely to follow where those characters take us. It is ironic that Nolan’s critics describe him as a cold filmmaker, one so preoccupied with ideas that he neglects the heart. Nothing could be more contrary; emotion is the fundamental principle that underlines everything – the action, the drama, the magic – and allows the ideas to flourish.
Batman Begins, though perhaps now overshadowed somewhat by the massive success of its sequel, was nevertheless an important step in Nolan's development and has, to a large extent, determined the trajectory of his subsequent career. It was a huge advancement in terms of scale and budget from his previous work and demanded that the widest possible audience was captured. The character of Batman is one always ripe for reinvention and the internal struggle between the self-made superhero and alter-ego Bruce Wayne has made him an icon of Shakespearean proportions, unlike many other equivalent comic book heroes like Superman and Spiderman whose cinematic and television vehicles have, thus far, been narrow in focus and largely restricted in terms of interpretative possibilities, Batman has always been something of a pop culture Hamlet, primed for re-examination and re-interpretation by a litany of actors and directors. Whereas most previous incarnations on both film and TV have been distracted by the colourful rogue's gallery of villains in the Batman mythos, Nolan's intent to make his hero the focus of his film was key to this re-boot. Casting an introspective Christian Bale provided a compelling centre around which Nolan built a story that considered the psychological damage inherent to a life propelled by thoughts of vengeance and, most interestingly, the way in which criminal culture springs up and takes hold of society in crippling ways. Nolan's contention would seem to be that single entities, however devilish, are less dangerous than the residual fear produced as a by-product of a progressive culture that attempts to deal with crime by civil methods. Rather than physical weakness, it is the fear of common people that criminals exploit and prey upon, poisoning all strata and gradually wrestling control from those increasingly powerless to stem the tide. If the film slightly falters, it is in the muddled and underwhelming action that forms the last act of the picture and the absence of a memorable villain – these failings making it arguably the weakest of his films to date – but the impressive first two thirds that demonstrated how to take the material seriously and present a comic-book world for a grown-up audience ensure it remains a worthy entry in the Nolan cannon.
Crucially, when it came time for Nolan to step-up to the blockbuster plate, he did so without seriously compromising his style or approach; returning to the concept of the ‘smuggler in plain sight’, Nolan managed to weave his commentary on crime, as well as further exploring the complexities of revenge, throughout the fabric of the film. Whereas Tim Burton’s Batman saw the hero avenge the murder of his parents at the climax of the picture, Nolan’s version denies Wayne, and the audience, the satisfaction. Whilst the earlier film saw his family ruthlessly executed by the gangster Jack Napier (the alter-ego of the Burton incarnation of The Joker, embodied by Jack Nicholson in one of his most animated performances), Nolan stages the death of Wayne’s parents very differently, as they are shot when a poverty-motivated mugging gets out of hand and the perpetrator gets scared and loses control – neatly tying the act into the film’s overall theme of pervasive fear. Wayne’s vengeance is subsequently snatched from him when his quarry is murdered years later in the courthouse on the orders of a third party. As would later be repeated in The Dark Knight, the hero is taken to the brink of accepted social boundaries and the film debates the morality of taking personal revenge against those responsible for inflicting violence. “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”, as Martin Luther King so eloquently put. This theme of vengeance versus love, out of which forgiveness and redemption may be granted, is explored throughout the majority of Nolan’s films; in The Prestige, Angier cannot let go of either his hate for Borden, who he believes contributed to his wife’s death, or the obsessive competition that leads him to such drastic, final measures; in Memento, Leonard cannot live with the realisation of his own part in his wife’s overdose or what he has become, and chooses to continue stalking his manufactured prey. Both are damned whilst in Inception, Cobb chooses to forgive himself and is saved, even if it is only within the confines of a dream. Though Wayne is initially denied the choice, his transformation into Batman pivots on his decision to base his actions on the grounds of justice and righteousness, and at the end of Batman Begins, has reconciled a sense of peace with himself and his new dual identity. During The Dark Knight, this code is stretched and broken, and the closing moments of the film witness him being chased by a pack of dogs like a common criminal, condemned to obscurity.
Somewhat similarly to Batman Begins, Insomnia, a remake of Erik Skjoldbjaerg's Norwegian thriller of the same name, successfully paved the way for Nolan to establish himself in the mainstream. Supported by Soderbergh, who, having publicly expressed his admiration for Memento, signed on as executive producer, this was an opportunity to prove Nolan could effectively handle a commercial property with major stars. As such, this is a conventional narrative piece based almost in its entirety on a pre-existing film (with some of the darker edges of its Scandinavian original smoothed out as is often the trend with American remakes) but not one without its share of Nolan hallmarks. Al Pacino is big city cop Dormer, tasked with tracking a killer in the Alaskan wilderness when a teenage girl is found murdered and it quickly becomes apparent to him that local writer Walter Finch, played by Robin Williams, is responsible. But when Dormer mistakenly kills his partner during a manhunt that goes tragically wrong, the only witness is Finch who proceeds to use this knowledge to subvert attention from his own guilt. In recognising each other's darkest secret, the two men become mirrors of one another, reflecting their own complicity in much the same way as the Joker provides counterpoint to Batman. Nolan continually uses different methods to portray this reflective adversarial line between protagonist and antagonist; Dormer and Finch are physically delineated as two separate opponents, as are Angier and Borden in The Prestige, and Bruce Wayne is confronted and conquers the many villains of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In other cases, Nolan internalises this conflict in the psychology of his characters where the protagonist and antagonist are one and the same; Leonard’s self-deception and Cobb’s subconscious projections represent the main forces in opposition to them.
One of the most interesting facets of Nolan’s films is the way in which they seek to place the audience directly in the mindset of the characters, and in depicting Dormer's sleeplessness, caused by feelings of guilt and the eternal sunshine specific to the remote setting, the combination of Pacino’s skilfully judged performance and the dazed, dream-like effect of the camerawork and jittery editing accomplishes the tremendously tricky task of eliciting a physiological reaction from the audience that conveys extreme fatigue without sapping the energy from the film or the viewer. Dormer’s inability to process his inner crisis leads to a gradual disintegration of his mental functioning to the point where the reality of events and his memory of them begins to diverge, creating another protagonist lost in irrevocable uncertainty.
Memento, the film that essentially announced Nolan as a major new talent to watch, is the ultimate existential thriller and a fittingly head-spinning summation of the millennial angst that then permeated an American cinema still recovering from the zeitgeist-defining likes of The Matrix and Fight Club. The ingenious premise, based upon a short story by brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan, of a amnesiac insurance investigator hunting his wife's killer without the aid of a short-term memory with which to filter each dubious new finding, gave Nolan the basis to create his most starkly solipsistic experience in which the audience must share the leading figure's confusion and try to make cohesive sense of a larger story obscured by the disorientation of his unique condition. Playing out the main narrative in reverse order, with each new scene concluding where the previous one had begun, the viewer must attempt to interpret each wrinkle of the unfolding plot without the benefit of context, taking people, action, facts at face value and then analysing their credibility to determine the value of retaining them as a navigational pointer toward the answers he, and we, seek. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) lives by the copious notes and Polaroids he takes as he goes along, but chooses which leads, theories and suppositions should be rendered as facts by tattooing them on his body, the final reality of his world beginning and ending with his own flesh as everything else – starting with his memories – dissolves into irrelevance. The film provides answers but the resolution is only important in as far as it offers no ending; this is a story about repetition, one of a routine that has been programmed within the mind in order to keep living. Catharsis is unachievable without the certainty of truth and healing is impossible without the ability to feel time. Death will be the only relief just as it will be the only given and everything in between a means of changing from one stasis to another. Nolan uses the backwards framework to arrest the mind by locking it in to the vicarious trauma of Leonard's conflict and allowing for no retreat to a remote perspective. Memento is Nolan’s most pessimistic film; without the ability to form new memories, Leonard cannot experience change occurring in the world, condemning himself to the abyss of his deteriorating psyche. In his closing voiceover, he says "I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can't remember them”, but the awful truth is that everything, especially for Leonard, is ephemeral; a grim announcement at the dawn of a new century.
Which brings us back to the start and Following, Nolan’s debut film that first showcased his potential as a writer and director of uncanny resourcefulness and creativity. Set in present day London, it tells the story of a young writer played by Jeremy Theobold, who follows strangers around the city in search of new material and is drawn into a dark underworld when he gets too close to one of his subjects. The nature of the production’s roots (the entire budget totalled only around £3,000) is inevitably apparent in places – little in the way of art direction, rough-hewn performances, plotting curtailed by the obvious restraints – but the underlying thriller narrative is solidly satisfying and, although perhaps its overall appeal will lie mostly with Nolan completists, the genesis of so many of the later films can clearly be seen here; the non-linear approach, the black and white photography (the flashbacks in Memento would be partially shot in monochrome) and a story in which a motivated but vulnerable novice is betrayed or let down by a surrogate master or manipulator (as seen again in Memento, Batman Begins and The Prestige). Even the film’s villain is named Cobb, a name re-used for Inception. Nolan and an assortment of friends he had made at the University College London’s film society shot for an entire year on weekends using economical 16mm stock and on real locations to which Nolan tailored his script, often utilising available light in the absence of professional lighting equipment, whilst actors supplied their own costumes. Nolan used voiceover (another device that would become commonplace in his work) in order to preserve as much clean audio as possible to ensure he was not solely reliant on the variable quality of sound recorded during takes on set. The entire film was made in direct consideration to the practicalities of its making, but without unduly interfering with or compromising the storytelling, and this is true of almost every other Nolan production – no matter what the resources, setting, technique or trickery deployed, the story has always come first. Following also leads to the issue of genre in relation to Nolan’s work; the film takes the form of a Neo-noir (the term referring to the thematic and visual updating of traditional noir which defined the more stylish and cynical of Hollywood crime dramas), the lighting often resembles that of German Expressionism, the presence of a mysterious femme fatal, the story of betrayal and manipulation, all leading to a dark, chilling finale. Nolan would return to the Neo-noir with Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, Inception and even the Batman films all displaying familiar visual signifiers and drawing upon similar basic traits but combined with many other varying elements – including police procedurals, comic-book superheroes, fantasy, and science fiction. The themes and re-occurring motifs examined here would indicate that Nolan is rapidly becoming a genre unto himself; each film is unmistakably his first and foremost, and conventional genre categorisation is as secondary to Nolan as it is to Andrei Tarkovsky or Stanley Kubrick.
Nolan has often been compared to Kubrick and when one considers the studied approach and layers of meaning embedded within their films, not to mention sharing a similarly erroneous perception for being coolly distant; it makes a certain degree of sense. However, a more fitting comparison would perhaps be with Hitchcock in the way that even over a still relatively small body of work Nolan has established a distinctive and recognisable signature style that connects with audiences of all kinds. As with the self-styled bravado of the Master of Suspense – though in a considerably more discreet key – the ‘branding’ of Nolan has increasingly become the major focal point in the marketing of his films, taking precedence even over the names of a roster of high-profile stars and resurrecting the notion of the ‘superstar director’ capable of drawing huge crowds – a truly amazing feat during such an era of celebrity idolatry. The now familiar combination of technique – from the harsh visual style that has taken noir out of the darkness and showered it with cool, white light to the temporal and structural experimentation – and recurring themes – from the perennial struggle to define personal identity to the obsessive quest to retain love in an indifferent world – has produced a clear perception of what a new film by Christopher Nolan will offer and the consistency with which he has so far delivered brings a accompanying guarantee of quality and intelligence that excites viewers the world over. Like Hitchcock before him, he is fast becoming a generation’s dominant auteur of commercial cinema. Opinions will vary and strong arguments could be made in favour of each of his films being personal favourites but it would seem that Memento and Inception represent to date the most completely realised unions of Nolan’s key touchstones, encompassing the unstable psychologies, shifting realities and anxious displacement that imbue each of his created characters and settings. The sheer boldness of Memento, and in particular the original method of presentation that made no concession to those unwilling to work as hard as its tragic lead to unravel the central mystery, remains a hard act to top, but Nolan has expanded and deepened his approach throughout his subsequent films and, ultimately, the most intriguing prospect in evaluating his work is not selecting highlights from a legacy still – one would hope – only very much in its infancy, but wondering where he will go from here and what future heights he may yet scale.
Alec Price and M. Dawson