With only seven feature length films in his little over a decade old canon, Christopher Nolan stands at the crossroads of artform greatness. Not just being the best of his kind, but as an auteur worthy of names like Kubrick, Mann, Hitchcock, and Lumet. He’s no “next Spielberg” Shyamalan or foot draggingly difficult David O. Russell. Instead, he’s the bellwether for a new kind of filmmaker, one that successfully merges Hollywood classicism with the best of the post-modern revision. Looking at the movies he’s made since emerging in 1996, one can witness the development and growth of an innovative icon, someone schooled in the old ways of working while finding novel means of making his far reaching, philosophical points. With Inception signaling his ascension into undeniable artistic importance, let’s look back over his oeuvre to see just where it all started - and how he earned his new illustrious rank.
Offering an initial glimpse into what would soon be a full blown motion picture aesthetic, Nolan’s no-budget debut is a celebratory shape of good things to come. Few have seen this minor monochrome masterwork (soon to be rereleased), a combination of the best that noir and the new aesthetic approach to film has to offer. Intercutting between a writer’s unusual obsession (he follows people inconspicuously as they go about their daily life) and a pseudo crime caper involving a burglar and a babe, Nolan acknowledges his limits while simultaneously using every deception he knows in the language of film. Filming with amateurs over a year of weekends, the resulting 69 minutes stand as a blueprint for what would soon be a career to be reckoned with.
With its eccentric cast - Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Guy Pearce - and equally unusual premise and presentation, Christopher Nolan declared his artistic worth with this wildly successful indie effort. Built out of his brother Jonathan’s short story Memento Mori, and applying a backwards story structure that bested Pulp Fiction for narrative ingenuity, the filmmaking novice vaulted past many other outside amateurs to step front and center into the critical limelight. While some argued that the movie was more gimmick than engaging, others find the mystery in reverse tactic more satisfying than the standard whodunit. Even today, ten years later, many marvel at its unique structure and cinematic daring.
Even more telling, Memento suggests the specific elements that would come to make Nolan a true directorial talent. The painstaking attention to details, the unbridled character depth, the desire that everything onscreen, from the smallest moment to the biggest big picture pronouncements, make solid sense are literally encased in his creation. Many miss the fact that Nolan is a brilliant writer as well. He has had a hand in every screenplay he’s ever filmed, and you can see the connection and consistency up on the screen. A movie like Memento could easily go perplexing and pear-shaped, especially in the hands of one of Hollywood’s hack journeymen. This is one time where high concept met even larger talent - and the result was magical.
It’s never easy adapting a popular foreign film for Western tastes, especially when said movie is this laconic, spellbinding thriller from Sweden. The original starred Stellan Skarsgård as a sleep-deprived detective on the case of a murdered girl. It exposed director Erik Skjoldbjærg to audiences worldwide, and was so well considered that the Criterion Collection gave the film one of its well-deserved Special Edition DVD treatments. So Nolan definitely had an uphill battle, especially with this being his first mainstream studio feature. Given a cast that includes a peak Al Pacino, a rising Hilary Swank, and a slightly misplaced Robin Williams, the filmmaker fashioned a kind of sunlit noir, a world where the darkest elements exist within the never-ending Alaskan days.
It’s not just that the former stand-up turned middling actor is wrong for the role of a sleazoid killer. Nor is it the oddball juxtaposition of European angst coming out of the mouth of high profile Hollywood faces. No, the true issue with Insomnia is one of “why bother”. Sure, Nolan seamlessly weaves the worlds of memory and immediacy, effortlessly swinging between flashback and fact, and he makes the most of his frozen tundra location. But Skjoldbjærg’s version was just as good, and Skarsgård gave a heartbreaking performance. So a remake was merely a matter of foreign film snobbery. No matter the genius of the man behind the lens, this version of Insomnia still seems unnecessary.
Batman Begins (2005)
It was a monumental task that any director would find daunting. Warner Brothers, desperate to revamp the Caped Crusader after Joel Schumacher and his day-glo frightmares more or less killed him off, was looking for some fresh new talent to take over the franchise. While names like Tarantino and Aronofsky were tossed about, Nolan got the nod. From the very beginning, he put his stamp on the project. He hired Christian Bale to play a decidedly tormented Bruce Wayne. He focused on less famous villains like Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul. He wiped away the cartoon sheen suggested by the material and set all the action within a dire, depressively realistic Gotham City. This new approach clicked. Audiences adored Nolan’s aggressive update, and critics applauded his originality and artistry.
This is definitely not Tim Burton’s Batman. Gone are the Goth tinged tricks and A-list anarchy. In their place are real performances from actors doing everything to make this material feel fully realized and totally authentic. Bale is especially good, though his breathy ‘Bat whisper’ gets the occasional fanboy in a lather. Yet Nolan wisely surrounded him with a supporting cast including old world wonders like Michael Caine (great as Alfred), new school sages like Liam Neeson, and Cillian Murphy (hauntingly creepy as Scarecrow/ Dr. Crane). With a clockwork narrative allowing all plot points to neatly fall into place, Batman Begins represented a new era for the comic book movie - one that Nolan would again redefine five years later.
The Prestige (2006)
In the year that passed after Begins broke through both critically and commercially, everyone wondered what Nolan would do next. While many wanted to see another installment of Gotham in chaos, they would have to wait for a future opening day. Instead, the director and his gifted screenwriter brother created a remarkable adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel. Oddly enough, of the two films centering on old world magicians to arrive that year (along with The Illusionist), Nolan’s was the much lesser hit. But what it lacked in financial windfalls it made up for in motion picture artistry. In a year that celebrated Martin Scorsese’s Departed with an Oscar, and saw stellar work arrive from Darren Aronofsky in the form of The Fountain, The Prestige was truly one the year’s best films.
At its core, The Prestige plays with notions of fascination, dedication and deception. It starts out as a professional battle of wills between two talented men, and ends up a sad comment on how low mere men will go to best each other. Bale is back, becoming a seasoned member of the Nolan creative company with his turn here, and Hugh Jackman delivers yet another insanely good performance as the showman who’s more flash than onstage substance. While both parts offer their fair share of nuance, the Aussie bests his British rival, reveling in a snarky kind of smarm. He makes your skin crawl as your heart breaks. A few years from now, when Nolan has settled into his multiple award winning career, The Prestige will be seen as his strong creative breakthrough. It stands as one of cinema’s strongest statements.
The Dark Knight (2008)
With his last film underperforming and the studio anxious for more Batmania, Nolan began the process of revisiting Gotham by looking for his next supervillian. At the end of Begins, Gary Oldman’s Sgt. Gordon (soon to be Commissioner) shows the Caped Crusader a piece of evidence - a playing/calling card for someone known as ‘The Joker’. With this dynamic already set up, the director started casting. Several people suggested Michael Keaton as the character, a nice bit of symmetry to the previous run of films. Others suggested Crispin Glover, Mark Hammill (who voiced the character in the cartoon update), and even an aging Jack Nicholson. Nolan went with Heath Ledger, the Australian actor best known for his work in Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain, and I’m Not There. It turned out to be an inspired choice (Ledger would go on to win an Oscar)…and a tragic one (after filming was completed, Ledger would die of an accidental drug overdose).
A combination of menace and melancholy looms over The Dark Knight, painting its masterful crime epic sweep in uncomfortable shades of interpersonal doom. Nolan’s take on the genre is a masterpiece, albeit one that avoids all the pitfalls that come with being yet another Summer box office draw. Blockbusters didn’t get much darker and demanding than this, a 150 minute descent into the fractured psyche of four unflappable men. Along with Bale and Ledger, Oldman returns for more Gordon drama, and just when you thought we’d found a hero to save Gotham, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent goes from conqueror to conquered in a literal blaze of g(l)ory. His Two-Face is just one of many amazing features in this effort, a true indication that Christopher Nolan was perhaps the best director working in films today. Inception would all but confirm this.
It stands as one of the great anomalies of Summer 2010 - a smart, brainy non-sequel, based on an original idea that is also a huge box office hit. Nolan’s name alone (and caped crusader rep) brought in over $60 million at the box office during this film’s first weekend and many are returning, not only to figure out the puzzle box plotting, but to repeat the insane vision on display. Reinventing the heist film as a comment on reality, this dream within a dream delight proves that all the accolades were not misplaced. Genius is as genius does, whether or not you drink the critical Kool-Aid. Of course, something this complex would drive a legitimate “love it or hate it” discussion, and so far, the positives have far surpassed the negatives. Yet there’s no denying that in a system stuck in mediocrity, that micromanages films down to their focus group approved, demographically determined components, Inception is inspired.
Everything about it is spot on - from the crackerjack casting (star Leonardo Dicaprio is in fine, award worthy form here) to the use of physics-defying special effects to explain and examine the dream world. Nolan navigates the tricky narrative avenues with ease, using exposition as well as illustration to argue for the creation of an alternative POV - and its impact. He then concocts a compelling tale of corporate espionage, family pride, personal loss, and sci-fi speculation and melds it all into a masterful manipulation of expectation. With the little touches as important as the eye-popping setpieces, Inception covers all bases, bringing its meticulous mannerisms to an audience not use to such specifics. In many ways, Nolan’s like the Coen Brothers. He is obsessed with details and design. But unlike said siblings, he is willing to hide his true intentions, sometimes saving them for a minor moment of dialogue…or an ambiguous ending. The truth can always be found during a reassessment. Perhaps that’s why Inception continues to resonate. Once you figure it out, it flummoxes you all over again, for other revelatory reasons.