There are SPOILERS for all of Christopher Nolan’s films in this article.
If there is one theme that runs through the filmography of Christopher Nolan, it is the rogue trading in the economies of truth. Although his films inhabit different genresâ€”neo-noir, detective films, Victorian melodrama and of course superhero blockbustersâ€”there is a thematic consistency that mirrors in its narrowness the obsessional personalities of his protagonists. The protagonists are probably a good place to start. All of Nolan’s films feature isolated, lonely, often besieged, unstable and/or crisis-ridden male heroes, who usually are guilty of, or will be guilty of, the death of their wife/lover/object of desire. Lying for these men is sometimes a job, sometimes a strategy, but something that they do, that they all do. In Memento (2000), Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man whose relationship to objective reality is compromised by his inability to retain his memory for more than 20 minutes. The audience is placed in a similar position via the contortions of the narrative, which proceeds backwards, forever wrong-footed and confused. The film consists of a chain of revelations; it is a kind of Ã¼ber-detective story in which almost everything is a discovery of a momentous nature. Of course, the biggest trick of the film is to reveal that Leonard’s condition might in fact be a lie, his whole past a fabrication to justify what would otherwise be an insupportably meaningless existence. He is making it up as he goes along. In effect (and this won’t be the last time in Nolan’s career that we will be able to say this), the film is about films: as the repeated image of a photograph developing and un-developing suggests, a film can be run backwards, even as a life can’t. Like a character from a Pirandello play, Leonard is partly creating his own narrative, has cast himself in a role, written his lines on his body and walks through the universe as if it was a film set, casting the people he meets in the roles that suit his myth. His ultimate decision to betray and kill a man is not because of the man’s sleazy shiftiness but rather because he is threatening to reveal the truth.
The lie begins as a coping mechanism but ends up being the character’s raison d’être. Narrative is a parcel of lies and as an audience we are implicated. Past story, motivation, these are all things we need as an audience, as much as Leonard needs them as a hero. Even though in Carrie-Ann Moss’s Natalie we have the not-to-be-trusted femme fatale, there is also the weird detail that if Sammy Jankis/Leonard really did kill his wife accidentally then the cover story of murder is not only an egregious lie, but also an unnecessarily embroidered one. Why does his wife have to be raped, and then killed? Why not just murdered? It’s almost as if Leonard has his whole psyche as a kind of MacGuffin. Memento is an empty-box film. Its central conceit, as with Inception (2010), is an empty box. It is an elaborate and beautiful box that we value for its contents, but which, like the Ark of the Covenant, is full of little more than dust and the possibility of destruction.
Whereas Memento reveals the intricate self-deception of narrative to be morally corrupt, Nolan’s next film Insomnia (2002) seeks to find a moral apologia for the Big Lie. Al Pacino’s ageing detective, Will Dormer, ties himself in knots trying to solve a murder while at the same time worrying himself sick over an IA investigation that is prying into an old case and looks set to unravel his reputation and career. When Dormer accidentally kills his partner and the man whose testimony could have brought him down, Dormer is wracked by guilt and self-doubt. Like Leonard, Dormer is in a state of mental crisis, but here due to his insomnia, exacerbated by the Alaskan summer. However, Insomnia is far more conventional as a film and gives a familiar moral argument for lying. We never believe for a second that Dormer intentionally killed his partner, so his self-doubt is evidence of his integrity. His confession that he planted evidence to ensure the conviction of a child killer who was otherwise going to be released is so skewed in his favour as to make him appear more heroic for having been dishonest. Dormer is a man who sacrifices his own personal morality for the larger good. This puts him in line with all those other guardians of justice, from Dirty Harry to Batman, who overstep the line and court infamy in order to protect society.
Batman Begins (2005) worries a little bit about lying, but not much. Its power fantasies are pitched against a conspiracy theory universe in which everything that happens in the world, from the Black Death to economic crises, is caused by the secret agency of the League of Shadows. Despite the concrete tactile realism of the film’s style, the film revels in its own adolescent myth-making. The Dark Knight (2008), however, sees Bruce Wayne hoping that his place can be taken by the new DA, Harvey Dent. Everyone in The Dark Knight lies. Copycat Batmans lie, pretending to be Batman; Bruce Wayne lies about not being Batman; the Joker lies about his scars and the location of Rachel; Rachel lies about loving Harvey; Alfred lies to Bruce about the letter; Gordon lies about being dead (to his own family) and finally Batman and Gordon conspire to lie about how Harvey Dent died and to nobly place the guilt on Batman’s shoulder. As James Zborowski (http://www.alternatetakes.co.uk/?2012,7,417) has recently noted in an article for Alternate Takes, the noble lie mirrors that ofThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), but whereas Ford’s film sees the lie as breaking the cycle of violence and founding a society, lies are so prevalent in The Dark Knight as to almost represent a pathological need. The explanation for the lie is given to a rousing musical crescendo and topped by the appearance of the title on the screen. Lying for Batman is not about protecting society, it is an act of becoming.
(By the way, the Joker does not represent a more honest anarchic spirit. He dishes out porkies left, right and centre. His self-representation as an anarchic free spirit is contradicted by his intricately plotted and sub-plotted schemes. If anything, the Joker is an intact Leonard Shelby, who no longer gives a damn.)
The two films that are most openly about deception are The Prestige (2006) and Inception. The titles of the films refer to the practices that make their protagonists a living through lying: the magicians of the former have the Prestige as the ultimate revelation and an inception is the dream lie Cobb and his team insert in their victims. The cost the two magicians are willing to pay in order to outdo each other gradually escalates as a form of Russian roulette that takes aim at loved ones as well as one’s self. In both films, the protagonists increasingly become lost in their own narratives until by the end of each, it is unclear to the audience exactly what it is they have witnessed. We are in the empty box, the centre-less maze Nolan uses as the logo for his production company Syncopy. With The Prestige, we do finally see inside the empty box to understand how the trick is done, but in so doing the emptiness of the protagonists themselves is horrifically revealed.
Inception is all about the construction of a series of Chinese box-dream states for the sole purpose of implanting a lie. The lie has to be emotionally positive, we are told in the meeting of the dream engineers who brainstorm like studio executives ruminating over a tired superhero franchise. Nolan has the last laugh on us, because by the time we witness Cillian Murphy’s resolution with his father we might well have forgotten that the whole thing is a lie and the man is being brutally manipulated in order to benefit a business rival. Of course, the dreams are not dreamsâ€”they look even less like dreams than Salvador DalÃ’s dreamsâ€”they are movies. Like Leonard, Batman, and the magicians of The Prestige, Cobb and his team make lies that they then get lost in – happily lost in. The fake ending is an interesting point, not because of its ambiguity but precisely because of its absolute lack of ambiguity. The spinning of the top is a sleight of hand (the totem is revealed in the movie to be useless in its carefully explained function as a totem as it is touched by various characters and anyway isn’t Cobb’s). We know Cobb can’t get back to his flashback children, unless we accept his fictional status. He certainly won’t get back to his real children. We know the top won’t stop spinning because there is no time outside the running time. There is no truth outside of the fiction.