dir. Christopher Nolan
* * * *
Nearly a decade ago a film blew mine and the minds of everyone else who saw it: Memento. It wasn't entirely because the film was told backword; that was the hook, but what looked like a gimmick turned out to be a way to articulate the psyche of the troubled character. Inception is, in some ways, Nolan's follow-up to Memento, and his third film; everything he's done after Memento have been adaptations of other people's work. And while his Batman films changed comic book films forever, this is the kind of film I and I think a lot of people who saw Memento expected Nolan to make.
Some have criticized the lack of emotion in this film; I think it has the most emotion of any Nolans' career, but Nolan isn't a director who does emotion. His films are procedural and structural character studies where the film exists more for the audience than the characters that inhabit the film (he's the inverse of a director like Clint Eastwood where character trumps both style and form). When Nolan has fallen short, and for me most glaringly in The Prestige, the problem is his attempt at creating sympathetic surrogates for the audience, but in turn in his films, for both good and ill, Nolan's characters are plot devices.
It helps to have a brilliant cast of actor's at your disposal to make this type of film. DiCaprio has starred in this year's two biggest head-scratches (Shutter Island), and handles a similar role in an even more complex structure. The difficulty in terms of performances in a film like this is that they are so fragmented linearly in editing. Having pro's from Ken Wantanabe to Tom Berenger act in these roles is more than smart casting; an off-key performance would be structurally deadly to a film like this and it would be highlighted even more so once things have been edited together. So, while Di Caprio isn't able to be as intense as he was in Shutter Island, and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt doesn't get to do much performance wise, the consistently good performances by the cast keep the film from falling apart.
Unlike Shutter Island, where the film relied on a twist that took 30 minutes to explain, there is no twist or structural slight of hand. The film's appeal is that, like Memento, it's a type of film that's so familiar to viewers. Memento was a revenge film, this is a heist movie. And it's probably the best straight-faced heist film since Heat, a film that actually has some thematic similarities to this minus all the dream stuff. Nolan doesn't hand hold, he throws us right into the film, but we can easily follow, and this mastery of procedure allows us, the audiences, to focus more on what these world's mean and tell us about the characters rather than where/when they are.
This is not a variation on The Matrix; that film was pop-culture philosophizing about the nature of reality. Inception at one point has 4 different worlds of action occurring simultaneously, but this serves not as a philosophical questioning of our existence but rather a psycho-analysis via the structural ambiguities of the film.
The film could have tightened it's finale, some of the scenes between DiCaprio and Coutilliard go on too long or are superfluous, and while it's awesome to have three simultaneously action sequences, it gets tiring no matter how fun or cool they are. But in terms of form and content this is a massive and extraordinarily rendered essay of a film. From the dream logic editing in the first third of the film, to Hans Zimmer reflecting the film's use of time via his score, the key to this film is its form. This is an essay about what Nolan does and what films could do.