2. Memento (2000)
Themes: Memory is a fickle thing, difficult to rely on for much accuracy. It’s even more difficult for Lenny in Memento. Memory, while inaccurate, allows us to heal. By remembering something, we can move past it. But because of Lenny’s condition, he is unable to move past the death of his wife, therefore it remains a fresh wound in his mind. The short story, “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan, upon which the film is based, begins with a quote by Herman Melville: “What like a bullet can undeceive.” The quote is taken from Melville’s Civil War poem “Shiloh-A Requiem.” In theory, nothing tells the truth quite like death; it is the great judicial leveler and as time passes the bodies are only bodies, no longer host to our ideas of morality and sides. Because Lenny can’t move past his wife’s murder, he can’t stop looking for a villain, he can’t let the bodies lie. And by creating a puzzle for himself, he can allow his bullet to tell him the truth he wants to be told.
“I’d rather be mistaken for a dead guy than a killer,” Lenny says. The truth is that he’s both. During the Renaissance, mementos were skulls kept around so that people could remember their mortality. Only later were mementos keepsakes attached to a certain moment or idea. In the short story, Lenny buys himself a bell as a joke because centuries ago bells were hung over graves so if a person was buried alive they’d be heard digging their way up. We see the bell in the form of a ringing phone in Memento, which provides Lenny with information and a puzzle to solve in order to bring him back to life. Lenny is unable to remember his mortality, unable and unwilling to recognize he’s wasting his life on finding a killer that’s already been found. This in turn makes Lenny a murderer, and worse yet, a serial-killer of the most untraditional nature. The great tragedy of Memento is that Lenny is forever a snake chasing his own tail, like the depiction of Ouroboros, because he’d rather deny evidence for momentary happiness.
Impact: Memento put Nolan on the radar as being one of the most original young filmmakers in the industry. It also cemented his brother, Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan’s status as a screenwriter. Wally Pfister’s work as Nolan’s cinematographer would continue though The Dark Knight Rises. With this film, Nolan plays around with story structure more than any other. Memento continues the themes of reinvention, and the “box” (in this case being Leonard’s file), and first explores the cost of obsession.
You can read Jonathan Nolan’s “Memento Mori” here.
- Insomnia (2002)
Themes: Insomnia, the only Nolan film that he did not receive a writing credit for and his only remake, offers a little less in terms of repeated themes. The central question Detective Dormer faces is whether or not the ends justify the means (this would become one of the foundations of The Dark Knight Trilogy). Like Lenny in Memento, Dormer denies and withholds evidence for a chance at happiness. But unlike Lenny, he is unable to live with it. And so it is his guilt that prevents him from sleeping, and his guilt that eventually undoes him. While Insomnia is far more of a traditional narrative, it makes an interesting foil to Memento in its exploration of a character who does in fact come to terms with his own mortality and redeems himself.
“You don’t get to pick when you tell the truth,” the murderer Finch tells Dormer during one of their confrontations. And yet, Nolan’s entire filmography is filled with characters who prove this notion false. Nolan himself, a master of the sleight of hand, uses each one of his films to choose when he wants to deliver the truth (if he wants to deliver it at all). There is only one other film in Nolan’s filmography that presents Finch’s words as truth: Inception.
Impact: Insomnia proved that Nolan could handle a studio-film and work with big-name Hollywood actors. The flashbacks here are less pronounced, but it’s clear Nolan is still interested in playing with structure. It is also the last small-scale film Nolan worked on before his move into grander ideas and larger budgets in which to explore them.
- Batman Begins (2005)
Themes: Nolan’s first Batman entry takes a more grounded approach to superheroes by exploring the icon through the lens of contemporary America. The film uses the status of legends, and fear to explore terrorism and counter-terrorism methods. Both Bruce Wayne and Ra’s al Ghul commit themselves to becoming more than simply men (the mentor-apprentice theme from Following resurfaces). Both are obsessed with reinventing themselves in order to achieve their goals, goals that can only be accomplished by using fear as a weapon. They very much represent America and the Middle-East in the wake of 9/11, or more specifically the U.S. military and Al-Qaeda (both operating on principles that transcend individuals). Wayne’s journey to becoming Batman relies on his ability to harness his own fears (bats, but also the thought that he is responsible for his parents’ deaths) in order to turn himself into a deterrent for criminals and corruption. Ra’s also seeks to root out crime and corruption, but his methods involve the total destruction of Gotham and the death of everyone in it so the city can restart itself (“what like a bullet can undeceive”). Where Wayne wants to build, al Ghul seeks to tear down.
The movement back to harmony will be unstoppable this time,” al Ghul tells Wayne. The use of fear is in order to enact change (the goal of every war). And as two opposing forces using the same weapon, neither al Ghul nor Wayne can fully ensure the change they want to see. Neither can fully bring the city back to harmony. The result is a stalemate between the two powers. Ra’s al Ghul’s efforts end up creating a savior for the city in the Batman, and Wayne’s efforts to defeat Ra’s result in the partial destruction of Gotham. While it seems Batman triumphs, it is impossible to ignore the destruction of the Narrows and the train meant to connect all of Gotham. What seems like a typical Hollywood blockbuster ending is instead a somber statement about the effect of war on the impoverished and the inability to maintain a connection between classes. And as Gordon implies at the film’s end, Batman’s existence can only lead to an escalation of those problems.
Impact: Nolan successfully reignited the Batman franchise and led to “reboot” becoming the hottest phrase in Hollywood. The film also began Nolan’s long-term working relationship with composer Hans Zimmer. With Batman Begins, Nolan cemented his place within the geek-crowd and began his own legend outside of the indie and dramatic circuit.