It took a year but I finally got around to my second viewing of Christopher Nolan’s dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-etc. opus Inception, a film that garnered much discussion and many opinions and a whole lotta box office cash last summer. I admired the movie’s intent but it left me feeling a bit distant, and as I re-watched it I found myself admiring its intent even more but being moved by its content and execution even less.
Obligatory background: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a specialist in extraction, a process whereby he and a few trusted associates enter someone’s subconscious and/or “dream state” and extract a piece of information. But the mysterious mega-millionaire Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers a job of inception, entering someone’s subconscious and planting an idea. This, of course, can’t be done. Except, of course, that it can, or so says Cobb, perhaps simply because Saito wields the offer of allowing Cobb to return home to his kids, his motherless kids because of the tragedy that long ago befell his wife Mal (Marion Cottilard).
As with my first viewing, the Mal relationship is where the movie begins to step wrong. Christopher Nolan is not a great purveyor of emotion. At least, not yet. The man knows his craft, I grant you. Sure. Vocationally, he does an awful lot right in this film. Dom’s relationship with his deceased wife is the sort of stuff of classic noir films and had the potential to be a passionately skewered version of The Wizard Of Oz. (“I need to get home. That’s all I care about right now.”) But when Nolan is required to show us Mal’s grisly fate he gets us to the moment by employing the ancient trope of voice-over stacked on top of flashbacks, which is to say that Nolan is unable to get us there visually. And because the whole thing is done via talking-heads speaking primarily in clarifying sentences, there isn’t a significant build-up and release and what should be overwhelmingly powerful is shockingly stagnant.
Throughout the film Nolan sufficiently elevates the stakes from scene to scene, just as he should, yet I caught myself thinking in that moment when Cobb and his team have entered the subconscious of Cillian Murphy’s character to incept the idea and the curtain is pulled back and they learn that in this dream state, unlike the others, if they die they may be caught in “limbo” and never wake up that this is an awesomely dramatic and colossal crisis that somehow on the screen does not feel as dramatic nor as colossal a crisis as it should. This happens again and again during Inception. It’s like a pop song where the hooks arrive right on schedule except they don’t move your booty.
Which brings me to my main point. In my original review, I lamented the fact Ellen Page’s character – “the architect” of the dreamworld – was nothing more than a delivery device for exposition, a way for the whole process of extraction/inception to be explained to the audience and, as the movie progressed, for her to continually describe the worsening Cobb/Mal situation so the audience knows exactly what’s going on. Of course in Black Swan, my #1 film of last year, the film about which I ranted and raved and raved and ranted, the Vincent Cassel character (the ballet’s artistic director) is, more or less, a delivery device for exposition. “The only person standing in your way is you.” And it is there, right there, that the river divides Christopher Nolan and the director of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky.
There’s that line in Inception where Leo says to Page: “Dreams feel real while we’re in them, right? Its only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.” In a sense, that describes the moviemaking process. So long as the movie works while you’re watching it, so long as it feels real during those two hours, you’re good, you’re gone. When it’s over, that’s another matter. It’s like that quote of the esteemed Roger Ebert several years back when he was taken to task by a reader who had ascertained all a movie’s “plot holes” after the movie had ended. Ebert replied: “If you also want it to all be plausible in hindsight, you’re probably disappointed when a magician doesn’t saw a real person in half and leave the severed corpse on the stage.”
Aronofsky is a black belt magician. You watch him work and you see the saw and the severed legs and the lady is screaming and the blood is flying and, oh, does it look real! You cower in terror from the authenticity. Vincent Cassel may be saying things for the audience’s benefit (even though, really, the audience didn’t need them and could have gleaned everything on its own) but Aronofsky whisks it away with all the tension and dread that coats every single moment. His movie expertly builds on its is-she-nuts-or-isn’t-she? narrative, ratcheting things up just a little more and then a little more and then a little more until it finally unleashes holy hell at the end and crescendos with the closing shot and it does all this with the fewest words possible. Except for the final lines, of course, which count for something because so little was said leading up to them.
Nolan, on the other hand, is like the magician who makes the Grand Canyon disappear but is simultaneously filming a how-I-did-it documentary. He presents you a play-by-play of everything while it’s happening so you don’t really ever have a chance to feel any of it for yourself. It’s a dream and you know you’re inside of it, and you might argue that quite often we find ourselves realizing we’re in a dream while we’re in it, those dreams still feel immediate. Inception, for all that goes on, and that’s a lot, never feels immediate, never feels life or death, never feels entirely emotionally available. There’s a shot near the end where they’ve entered the fourth or fifth or sixth or seventh or whatever dream level and Ellen Page leaps out a window to “die” and wake herself up and I don’t know about you but I’ve definitely fallen and “died” in dreams and it’s terrifying. But Nolan can’t wring any magic from moments like this one. He can’t make us feel it the way we feel in dreams.
Aronofsky is an auteur. Nolan is just one hell of an idea man.
SO, HAVE I STIRRED UP THE HORNET’S NEST? ANYONE HAVE A REBUTTAL? I CAN TAKE IT. LET ME HAVE IT. I WAS JUST BEING HONEST!