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Inception: Dreamscapes and Mind Games

Earlier this week, whilst participating in Things That Don’t Suck‘s Christopher Nolan blogothon, I described Inception as my most-anticipated wide-release movie of the summer. Well, last night I caught a midnight screening, and was enthralled: it lived up to all the expectations, the hype, and the mystifying trailers. This is only a tentative review, because the film hasn’t had any time to settle in my brain yet, but I think I can guarantee that we’ll be talking about Inception for a long time. It follows all of Christopher Nolan’s pre-established authorial tendencies, but adds in a few new tricks and twists to delight the senses and boggle the mind. It’s sort of a Borgesian action movie, with a dash of neo-noir and M.C. Escher. If that doesn’t convince you to buy a ticket, nothing will. Now, on to the movie itself…

The plot of Inception is relatively simple, as it follows the formula of every heist film from The Asphalt Jungle to Bob le Flambeur to the present day. A crook with a checkered past (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb) finds out about a risky plan with a huge pay-off, he assembles a team of specialists, they concoct strategies for every outcome, and they do the job, which here constitutes the majority of the film. But, as always, complications arise, and soon our team is in for the fight of their lives (or, rather, their minds). While the plot may be simple enough, it’s grounded in the complex techniques of shared dreaming, which is thankfully explained to us with the neophyte Ariadne (Ellen Page) as our stand-in. You can enter someone’s dream and alter it, you see, but not too much or else their subconscious projections will attack you. If you die in a dream, you wake up, except not always. If you think this is confusing, just wait till you enter a dream within a dream (within a dream, ad infinitum).

Nolan has tons of fun with these dreams and the nonlinear narrative techniques they allow. This isn’t just the same old chronological rearrangement as we saw in Memento, though; much of the film actually unfolds in parallel stories with different timescales. Between the hazy laws of dreaming and this layered storyline, it’s easy to get lost in Nolan’s maze, as I did once or twice. But it’s just as easy to retrace your steps and get back on track because he’s left a path for you to follow: the emotional arcs of Cobb and his team’s would-be victim, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). The former is dealing with the loss of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard); the other with the loss of his ornery father. In dreams, however, checkered past can become physical reality, and both characters must do some quick soul-searching – Fischer especially, since the team’s success depends on his emotional state.

Many films have taken place partially or entirely inside dreams. (See this recent Inventory for more.) Nolan one-ups just about all of them by manipulating the paradoxes, the irrational events, and the conflation of the symbolic and literal that are the stuff of dreams, all to enrich his action-packed, emotion-based story. I have only a few gripes with the film, like the way the performances sometimes feel cramped by the density of the script, preventing Page or Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who plays Cobb’s right-hand man) from shining as brightly as they have in other films. At some moments, the characters feel reduced to accessories of the plot, a failing Nolan is prone to. The resolution is also abrupt, slightly suspect, and predictable, but it’s a minor complaint given all the giddily warped physics and three-tiered climaxes that preceded it. Finally, you will be confused; for my part, I enjoyed it. That sense of disorientation is just part of experiencing a Christopher Nolan movie, and this one is easily among his best.

[END OF NORMAL REVIEW. SPOILERS AHEAD.]

Now that I’ve given a broad overview of Inception and why I recommend it, I want to get a little more analytical, which means giving away crucial plot details. As in Memento, Nolan embedded the end of the film in the beginning, though time this around, it wasn’t required by the overall structure. Yet Cobb washing up on the shore of Saito’s decades-long limbo doesn’t feel forced or tacked on. It blends easily into the real beginning, the two-layer dream interrupted by Mal. Nolan is playing on a very deep level with how we react to plot structure. Rather than thrilling us with just what’s on the screen, he engages us with the order he puts it in. So part of Inception‘s fun, as with Memento or any similarly puzzling story, is the cognitive experience of being demystified. And this synchs up with the film’s reality/illusion dichotomy, as we must use all the onscreen evidence to establish causality, chronology, and objective truth (if there is any).

With Inception, then, Nolan is really coming into his own. He’s refining his techniques and obsessions while taking them in more extreme directions. Mal, for example, is both of Nolan’s female character types (femme fatale and lost love) rolled into one, with both those functions tied together.1 Relevantly, the flashbacks of Mal’s story reminded me of a comparable film from earlier this year, Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Both films are strongly concerned with the noir theme of destabilized masculine subjectivity, and in both films, DiCaprio has a crazy wife seen only in flashback. Teddy’s wife in Shutter Island, however, never gets a crisis as compelling as Mal’s existential doubts, and the terms of the conflict are far more consistent in Inception. Cobb’s final confession to Mal – “I can’t imagine you with all your complexity…” – also rebukes any notion of the masculine gaze capably encompassing femininity.

Setting aside Cobb’s internal struggles, I’d like to touch on the film’s broader atmosphere. Nolan has a knack for making open spaces feel hermetically sealed. In Memento, Leonard could drive and drive, but he never escaped that city. In Inception, Cobb can fly and fly, but he’s trapped unless he can get back to America and his children. The characters’ jet-setting, like their costumes, is really a throwback to both film noir2 and to the glamorous, intercontinental heist movies of the 1960s, as well as the James Bond franchise. In its monochrome, streamlined décor and its genre trappings, Inception is something of a self-conscious pastiche infused with a totally fresh premise and nested structure. This is compounded by the fact that Cobb’s métier is corporate espionage: the conflicts between Saito, Cobol Engineering, and the Fischers act as a grandiose but hollow frame for the real, substantive story of concealed traumas.

Maybe Inception‘s greatest victory is how well everything hangs together, how it lays out its ideas and plausibly keeps them straight, even if the audience can’t. The team’s subtle strategy for manipulating Fischer determines the progress of the dream layers, convincingly translating the psychoanalytical into the physical. And I’d take the slow-motion sequences of Dileep Rao’s crash into the water, and the consequent shifting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s balance in the hotel, against anything The Matrix had to offer. Although comparisons are inescapable and it was probably a significant influence, The Matrix was so burdened by its pretentious, Joseph Campbell-inspired sci-fi mythos that it pales next to Inception, which is cleaner and straighter to the point. It’ll no doubt be the best American movie of the summer, since Nolan has replicated the masterstroke he pulled off with The Dark Knight: making an action movie that’s at once engrossing on a superficial level, but also genuinely cerebral. Now let’s see what he cooks up for the summer of 2012.

1Mercifully, Page’s Ariadne represents a departure from that schematic, as she’s a caring, perceptive woman who’s also good at what she does. Have I mentioned that I love Ellen Page?

2When Cobb mentions Buenos Aires early on, all I could think of was Gilda.

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