Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ and a New Definition of “Critic-Proof”
Revisiting Inception, Ten Years Later
For a filmmaker often accused of possessing a cold, clinical, fussy approach, Christopher Nolan seems to produce an awful lot of movies propelled by obsession. His 2000 breakthrough, Memento, used its backwards structure to underline the jumbled frustration of its protagonist – in the same way, Nolan has consistently employed unorthodox delivery methods for his particular brand of pathos. For all the critical hemming and hawing over whether or not Nolan is a genius or a fraud, there rests one simple fact: his movies either work on an emotional level for the viewer, or they don’t. If they fail to connect, Nolan’s ever-more elaborate schemes feel cheap and even exploitative. If he succeeds, however, the combined effect of viewer involvement and Nolan’s narrative and visual trickery can be an incredibly potent experience. Inception ranks as Nolan’s greatest gambit, a psychological “heist” movie that attempts to keep a bead on a pained emotional core while also transcending reality and defying the laws of nature. Its high-risk, high-reward nature will lead to inevitable disappointment for some, but those willing to immerse themselves in the film’s peculiar reality will find themselves thrilled and enthralled.
With the obvious exception of Heath Ledger’s Joker, Nolan is not known for stoking especially memorable performances – his protagonists tend to be impersonal and single-minded. That’s still true of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “extractor” Dom Cobb, but DiCaprio’s relatively soft features and hangdog posture help to render him a more sympathetic figure than a Bale or Pearce figure might have. Cobb is the leader of an elite team of crooks, whose specialty is plugging into an individual’s subconscious in order to steal secrets, often in the service of corporate espionage. For the job that takes precedence in Inception, however, they’re hired by a business tycoon (Ken Watanabe), who makes Cobb and his team an offer they can’t refuse – a sly take on the old “one last job” trope of more or less every heist film in history. An impressive roster of performers – Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Dileep Rao – fill out supporting roles best left out of a tidy synopsis.
Nolan, if nothing else, is a believer in spectacle (as proved by The Dark Knight‘s many fiery set-pieces), and on that level, Inception should disappoint virtually no one. After a first hour that somewhat laboriously establishes the rules and pitfalls of “extraction” (and the even more precarious art of “inception” – the act of leaving something in the subconscious rather than absconding with it), the film embarks on what amounts to the longest heist in movie history, a relentless journey through multiple layers of reality, each with their own peculiarities. The one pitfall of Noaln’s set-pieces is their reliance on bland spurts on gunfire – especially glaring since we’re dealing with a dreamscape – but in the face of his more inventive flourishes it’s a forgivable offense.
At the heart of all this fanfare lies a relationship that, for many, will act as the fulcrum on which their overall opinion of Inception‘s effectiveness rests. Cobb’s own subconscious is haunted by the apparition of his wife (Marion Cotillard), who appears in increasing states of distress. While much of Cotillard’s post-Ma Vie En Rose casting has felt arbitrary, here she brings a fiercely unsettling presence to a movie that desperately needs a destabilizing force in order to feel human. Between Cotillard and Page’s restlessly curious “architect,” Nolan finally seems to be comfortable with having female characters serve genuine purpose as something other than pawns or bland victims in his filmic universes.
Many will question Nolan’s need for having quite so many rules and restrictions for the film’s version of the subconscious, and by extension, the film’s occasionally tiresome opening stretch. While Nolan’s screenplay (his first since Memento) could certainly use some streamlining in that regard, and some of the plot mechanics feel extraneous (totems?), the sluggishness isn’t a deal-breaker considering the brisk pacing of the rest of the film. Like all of Nolan’s work, it’s the commitment you’ll just have to make in order to be effectively immersed. “Critic-proof” is a term usually thrown at hacks and “audience-friendly” studio pawns, but Nolan’s works occupy a different definition of “critic-proof:” you see Inception (or The Prestige, or Memento, or Insomnia, or Dunkirk), and his ideas either “take,” or they don’t – but going in with the willingness to be awed certainly helps.