2010 // USA // Chistopher Nolan // July 27, 2010 // Theatrical Print (St. Louis Cinemas Moolah Theater)
[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
My second descent into Christopher Nolan's breathless heist-of-the-mind proved to be a far richer experience than I had anticipated. I settled into my seat prepared to engage in a little due diligence: putting to rest some lingering questions vis-à -vis the mechanics of the film's "shared dreaming" conceit, as well as resolving my creeping suspicions that Inception's aspirations of thematic profundity would prove to be hollow in the cold light of another viewing. On this second point, I was pleased to be proved wrong.
While the film's labyrinthine plot has been subject to endless online parsing—see Sam Adams' essential, exhaustive summary and exegesis at Salon, if you're still sorting it out—all the crunchy specifics quickly receded into the background on a second viewing. A pre-existing familiarity with the story's stacked levels of consciousness and elaborate science-fiction rules (thin on the science end though they might be) allowed me to engage with the film's other facets, which proved to be deeper than I remembered.
With hindsight, it's apparent that Cobb is not only not the hero of this story, but may actually be the villain, albeit one that is more negligent and selfish than actively malicious. His obsessive attachment to Mal and his determination to be re-united with his children (and who can fault him for the latter?) results in a horrendous lack of judgment, setting up the story's most perilous conflicts. For the other team members, there's not that much as stake in the inception of Robert Fischer. If their mission fails, all that's lost is a share of their reward from Saito. Cobb's deceptions—he conceals both his problems with Mal and the risks associated with Yusuf's custom sedative—put them all in danger, including Saito himself, who's bank-rolling the whole endeavor. Almost as quickly as she is introduced, Ariadne steps into the role of Cobb's conscience: she's having none of his taciturn, lone wolf posturing, in light of the peril he's placing them in. These aspects stand out much more starkly the second time down the rabbit hole, almost to the point where the heady action—which is so intrinsic to the film's initial wallop—becomes its least interesting aspect to dwell on.
Admittedly, there's not much spark between DiCaprio and Cotillard, and Nolan isn't willing to do the heavy lifting to justify his leads' glistening tears and howls of anguish. Still, Cobb's reluctance to let go of his wife's memory is the dynamo that generates Inception's dark energy, and on my second go-around, I was much more taken with the story of the man's profoundly damaged psyche. In this, the film shares much with Nolan's Memento, as both feature protagonists who exude confidence and street-smarts, and yet dwell inside bubbles of fantasy and denial. At least in poor Leonard's case, his delusion is entwined with his short-term memory loss; Cobb, meanwhile, has no excuses for his behavior, other than his apparent belief that his skill at extraction makes him exceptional, and therefore above his own rules. If the story of Fischer Senior and Junior is somewhat lacking in emotional vigor, it's nonetheless fascinating to witness all the ways in which Cobb's journey parallels that of the young billionaire. The film's heist is, of course, as much about Cobb's catharsis as Fischer's. While I'm not convinced that Cobb is "really" the subject of the inception, or the more baroque theory that Araidne is actually his therapist, the contours of Nolan's script suggest that Cobb's tale is the one that matters here. Everything else in the story comments upon and adds texture to that fundamental drama of one man's stubborn refusal to move on.
While my own reaction to the film has been quite positive, some of the criticisms aimed at the film are nonetheless observant and ably articulated. Dennis Cozzalio's take, particularly his trenchant pinpointing of some of Nolan's questionable storytelling choices, comes closest to the reaction of my own Dark Side, a bitter imp that hates everything brash, everything self-important, and especially everything brashly self-important (which Inception most certainly is). That said, talking about criticism itself (or, horrors, talking about criticism about criticism) makes me a little queasy, so for now I'll just point you in the direction of some of the usual suspects, some of whom are much less sanguine than I about the film's merits: Glenn Kenny, the Film Doctor, Jason Bellamy, J.D. at Radiator Heaven, and, naturally, Jim Emerson, whose antipathy for Nolan's films is well-known and always impressively elucidated.