From the ice-cold amorality of his debut feature, Following, to the electrifying and nihilistic conclusion of Memento, Christopher Nolan’s film career seemed to once hold great promise. However, in the years that followed Nolan’s sensibilities changed dramatically. This seismic change is evident not only in his films possessing a continually inflated scope, or his casts becoming more and more engorged with the presence of A-listers, but also in the thematic content of his stories and ultimately the worldview espoused through his artistic palette. Nolan’s cinema, which was once daring enough to perpetually exist in an ethical vacuum, eventually resigned itself to producing flaccid morality plays, stripping away the ambiguity of the narrative to deliver a message with thuggish and simplistic bombast.
The most visible example of Nolan’s shift into far more conventional waters is his remake of the excellent Norwegian film, Insomnia. It serves as the perfect portrait of the filmmakers abandonment of the gritty, ambivalent perspective at the heart of his earlier work. The filmmaker’s American remake was a departure for the director in many ways, featuring a budget four times larger than Memento, and the presence of major stars in the leading roles. Yet, easily the most striking change is the filmmaker’s decision to fundamentally alter the original film’s ending. In his remake, Al Pacino’s dogged Will Dormer achieves moral redemption by finally coming clean about his role in the shooting death of his partner, Hap, urging Hilary Swank’s earnest, straight-edge rookie to not lose her way and allow the truth to be become known. This alternation is starkly contrasted to the original film’s powerfully bleak portrait of its main character (embodied by Stellen Skarsgard), who chooses to accept his colleague’s decision to give him a pass on the shooting, despite the fact that he is suffering feelings of guilt, exacerbated by his sleep deprivation.
This thematic change in the final outcome of the story is simply a terrible choice, as it ultimately doesn’t articulate anything aside from stating that guilt is something that often needs to be assuaged through some sort of confessional. What’s especially distressing is that the remake’s script goes to great lengths to explain Will’s predicament in relation to the shooting, discussing how he is under investigation by Internal Affairs and how one slip-up could basically allow an entire lifetime of police work to be reevaluated and have the cases of incarcerated perps reopened. There is an incredible amount of importance riding on Will’s reputation remaining secure, which makes his eventual attempt to regain his morality questionable because nothing can be fixed through this course of action; Hap will still be dead.
This shift in the character’s final actions strains the plausibility of the film, essentially asking for the audience to swallow one whopper of moral choice. While the question about if Will would allow his life’s work to be ruined – because there might possibly have been some malice behind him shooting his partner – may be a matter of opinion, it still appears to be highly implausible based just on the evidence the film presents about the pros and cons of him coming clean. There is simply nothing to be gained through the revelation of his involvement and everything to lose. What makes it an especially silly and ultimately fruitless action is that Will’s acceptance of Swank’s Ellie eventually publicizing his role in the shooting only occurs when he is knocking on death’s proverbial door, having been mortally wounded while slugging it out with Robin William’s twinkle-toes killer.
This is another upsetting aspect of Nolan’s more recent work – which has become more and more glaring with each new film. In your average Nolan story straying from a moral path is typically synonymous with punishment, manifesting itself either through the death of a protagonist’s loved one, the loss of the protagonist’s life, or, at the very least, the protagonist experiencing serious trauma either emotionally or corporeally. Whether it be Will’s death at the conclusion of Insomnia, the explosive murder of Rachel in The Dark Knight, or the the two dueling magicians who constitute the drama at the core of The Prestige, the universe that Nolan’s cinema inhabits is committed to doling out retribution for immoral behavior.
Taking these two ideas (the pointlessness of Will’s deathbed morality grab, and the consistent theme of moral retribution intrinsic to Nolan’s post-Memento canon) we see that ironically it is Nolan’s initial forays into professional movie-making that possess the most mature worldview. In both Following and Memento Nolan was daring enough to depict his protagonist’s actions with ambivalence, not focusing on a never-ending procession of cause and effect, or always depicting repugnant behavior being following by a swift, cosmic kick in the nuts. The Dark Knight is probably the most shameful example of this process, where literally the scene which directly follows Batman’s decision to engage in a brutal, “War on Terror” style interrogation of Joker depicts the utterly hilarious character of Rachel getting blown sky-high. Another instance of the universe reprimanding the moral transgressions of the filmmaker’s characters is in Nolan’s 2006 effort, The Prestige, where both Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier, and Christian Bale’s Alfred Bolden find their lives destroyed through their obsessive, acrimonious relationship.
Now you may of course be thinking that the combative dynamic at the heart of The Prestige doesn’t really qualify as effective support for the idea that Nolan’s cinema has become excruciatingly moralistic, as the destructive outcome for both characters is how a story like this would naturally play out. However this isn’t really the point; this essay is not attempting to equate the punitive outcome for the characters in The Prestige with the characters in Nolan’s other efforts, like Dark Knight or Insomnia. The reason it’s included is simply to help articulate one of the dominant thematic trends in Nolan’s later work. This trend of punishment following immoral acts is so consistent that one might even suspect there is an unspoken production code in place, similar to the code tied to the gangster film genre of the 20’s and 30’s, where it was mandated that the central character must meet some sort of violent end.
The Prestige, like Dark Knight and Insomnia, are simply much safer films than Following or Memento. While the the idea of a character being punished for immorality runs throughout a majority of Nolan’s later filmography, The Dark Knight goes one step further, suggesting that it is only through an act of illogical and highly sanctimonious goodness that a society can pull itself out of the depths of violent, chaotic anarchy. Now, the filmmaker’s exploration of the futility inherent to one trying to fight fire with fire is certainly commendable, yet his inclusion of the ferry sequence near the end of the film presents the alternative course of action in such a comical, bombastic fashion, and is so painfully devoid of both realism and nuance that it makes you feel like you just took crazy pills.
Now lets contrast these films from Nolan’s later period (aka post-Insomnia) with the harsh nihilism and startling amorality that defined his more independent efforts. In thinking back to Nolan’s debut feature Following this thought might come to mind: “Well shit, Jeremy Theobald’s feckless young man experiences his own form of punishment due to straying from a socially acceptable moral code.” However, if you are thinking that you need to know that you are absolutely wrong. While it is indeed true that the nameless protagonist from Following does experience an ample amount of hardship following his brushes with criminality – such as being arrested and having the girl who he kind of, sort of cares about get brutally murdered – the real amoral character of the story is not Theobald’s young man but the character named Cobb, the charismatic sociopath who is zestfully portrayed by Alex Haw in his sole screen appearance.
At the end of the movie Haw’s character is not punished by the vengeful Nolan-verse, instead simply disappearing back into the anonymous bustle of London like he initially appeared. The film doesn’t attempt to impose some sort of judgement on him or produce any sort of awkwardly forced confession. The story doesn’t contain stilted dialogue like the sequence in Insomnia where Will Dormer bizarrely decides to reveal his greatest secrets to some hotel proprietor played by the chick from ER. There is no tiresome moral discussion underscoring the entire thematic structure of Following, there’s really no ambiguity at all to the proceedings. Haw’s Cobb certainly doesn’t seem preoccupied by such silly questions, and neither does the film. It is perfectly content to be a little mean-spirited tale where men and women do horrible things to each other and can, more often than not, abscond into the mono-chromatic cityscape without having to pay for them.
Memento’s events also seem to transpire in this stark, indifferent, and amoral universe. However the film is far more complex than Following, exploring the process of how someone handles guilt or loss with far more perspicacity than something like Insomnia. Memento is a film that, at least on its surface, is superficially obsessed with its gimmicky structure, which of course revolves around the superfluous character trait of Guy Pearce’s unforgettable Leonard Shelby not being able to remember something for more than a couple of minutes. This has led to many people vociferously and ignorantly proclaiming that Memento is a cold, emotionless film drunk off its clever premise. However to believe such a thing is to once again have missed the point completely, as Memento is far more fixated on how one attempts to find meaning in life (or a reason to continue living) when their very ability of relating to the exterior world (memory) has been taken away through a traumatic incident.
The hard-edged nihilism of Memento comes through most clearly with this particular theme, suggesting (through the damaged memory schtick) that Shelby has both trained himself to expunge the memories of his participatory role in his wife’s death (by transposing his actions and situation onto the con man known as Sammy Jankis), and is consciously choosing to continue killing people in order to provide himself with a reason to continue existing. Of course this dramatic situation is the kind of hyperbolic predicament typically found only in movies. However, to think that Memento’s thematic lens does not extend to the more average, ordinary experiences that occur in everyday life is a woeful misread of the film’s message. Guy Pearce’s brain-damaged, amateur sleuth is merely a cypher to examine the dubious nature of memory, and how the notion that the development of a person’s identity, a part of which being an individual’s moral code, is often vulnerable both to exterior manipulation (personified by Pantoliano’s Teddy) or interior suppression (indicated through the film’s finale).
The acumen of Memento is most clearly expressed in the final scene, where Pantoliano’s Teddy reveals to an increasingly rattled Leonard that he is just as complicit in propagating the myth of the John G. killer, and that he is guilty of “lying to himself to be happy” in order to provide his life with purpose. Teddy also claims that this tendency is not just something unique to Leonard and his particular condition, but that “we all do it.” This small line of dialogue defines humanity as living in a quotidian state of ethical murkiness, where people cannot face the real truth of their existence.
This idea dwarfs any of the comical moral ambiguity seen in later Nolan pictures, and is much truer about how people actually process difficult experiences than Will Dormer’s quivering whisper of “Don’t lose your way,” right before his death rattle at the end of Insomnia. The truth that Memento brilliantly outlines is the void at the heart of the human experience, which cannot be objectively filled or defined by something as wildly subjective and vulnerable to exterior influence as one’s memories. What this insinuates is that memory, and the actions of a human being that memories inform and influence, are free to be changed at will, imbued with new meaning for good or ill, in the hope of being able to carry on living.
During the unforgettable final scene of Woody Allen’s 80’s classic, Crimes and Misdemeanors, the director’s sad-sack of a character (Cliff Stern) sits alone at a party, crestfallen at the prospect of losing the girl he loves to the odious clutches of his arch-nemesis of a step-brother (an uproarious Alan Alda). He’s quickly joined by the film’s other lead character, the murderous ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal, perfectly embodied by the great Martin Landau. The two men discuss the film’s main theme, which is moral choices. A stark divide soon appears however, with Landau’s Judah asserting that a person turning themselves in in the pursuit of moral redemption is stuff found only in cinema, and that if one wants a happy ending they should “…go see a Hollywood movie.”
The parallels here between the content of Cliff and Judah’s conversation and the thematic progression of Christopher Nolan’s work are glaring and powerful, with the characters in Crimes and Misdemeanors almost being symbolic for both stages of Nolan’s career. The character played by Woody Allen seems to represent the Nolan that we’ve been seeing for the past ten years, stressing the importance of having characters feel the weight of the moral universe in which they exist, and then being prompted to seek redemption through making amends. He reflects a period where the possibility of punishment for immoral infractions is essentially a guarantee. Landau’s Judah is of course the opposing viewpoint, the pre-Insomnia stage of Nolan’s career, contesting that the silly, contrived morality plays which constitute the director’s later work are purely the stuff of fiction; they don’t reflect real life or how real people act, and more often than not people escape from punishment for blatant immorality.
The earlier Nolan efforts possessed a bitingly harsh perspective, ice-cold and amoral in tone surely, but were actually respectful of the audience. The dichotomy that has developed between the two stages of the director’s career is now both deep and seemingly irreversible, with his affinity for a perpetually expanding form of mainstream entertainment appearing to reflect an inability or a disinterest in returning to the small crime movies that initially introduced to him to the world. At one point in Crimes and Misdmeanors Judah engages in a dreamlike fireside chat with his Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterson), debating the philosophical question of whether or not a moral structure or “God” pervades the universe, and whether or not human behavior should operate under the assumption that there is. “God is a luxury I can’t afford,” says Judah with devastating gravitas, again being symbolic of the mentality present in Nolan’s early work. If only the director had been listening.