*Plot spoilers below
A recent conversation with a friend has helped me see a reoccurring question through Nolan’s films. Is lying to oneself or the community necessary for survival? Does man require ‘myths’ or ‘illusions’ to keep himself going? These questions can be seen in all of his films in some form.
Memento: The hero (Guy Pierce) cannot make new memories since he and his wife were attacked. He is on a quest to avenge the murder of his wife until he finds out that he has already caught and killed the attacker over a year ago. He has been lying to himself, creating “a puzzle he could not solve”, in order to give his life meaning. In the final scene, he decides yet again to forget this truth so he can keep going.
Insomnia: The hero (Al Pacino) is a detective who is considered a white knight because of all the people he has put behind bars. It turns out, however, this white knight is really a dark knight because on one occasion he doctor-ed the evidence in order to get the criminal convicted. This leads to a slippery slope in which he commits murder to cover up his earlier misdeed. An up and coming detective discovers the truth and is faced with a dilemma: if she turns him in, that will reopen all the cases which he closed legitimately. The hero tells her to do it anyway; otherwise “she, too, will lose her way.” This film is especially interesting because it is the only one which Nolan sides with telling the truth.
Inception: The hero (Leonardo Dicaprio) has to pick between living in a dream or reality. In what APPEARS to be the climactic scene, he tells his wife he chooses reality; however, in the final scene the audience is left wondering whether he made it out of the dream or not. What is often overlooked is that he does not care either way. Whether or not the spinning top will stop is the clue to figuring out if he is in a dream or not. The audience is eagerly watching the top or ‘totem’, but he is not. He spins the top and then hugs his children; he is indifferent to whether the top will fall or not. His children could be a false image, yet he doesn’t seem to mind.
In all the films, but one, Nolan takes the side of lying. Why the anomaly? I’m not sure. The overall theme though is Myths or illusions are necessary to maintain life. Postmodern? No, but it isn’t exactly rosy either.