Though he has only directed eight feature-length films, Christopher Nolan is undoubtedly one of the most talented and impressive filmmakers in cinema history. From his brilliant manipulation of perception in Memento (2000) to his mind-bending structural acrobatics in Inception (2010), few directors consistently produced films that beg for discussion and analysis the way Christopher Nolan’s films have. As the world prepares for the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s final excursion into the world of Batman’s beloved Gotham City, it seems appropriate to look back at the director’s work and how he became one of the most impressive and inventive filmmakers working today.
Although most people were introduced to Nolan by way of his brilliantly orchestrated film Memento, Nolan’s first feature film was the mostly unseen Following (1998) which was filmed in and around London (Nolan was born in England) and received an almost non-existent release in the U.S. in 1999. Shot in black and white, the neo-noir story focuses on a Young Man (Jeremy Theobald) who follows people he thinks look interesting as a way to inspire his writer’s spark. In addition to the non-linear storytelling style Nolan has employed in most of his films, Following is also filled with other Nolan signatures including stark lighting, point-of-view camera work and unreliable narrators. (Nolan’s first film, a short titled “Doodlebug,” is more comparable to David Cronenberg’s early work than to most of his own.)
Following also introduced us to another reoccurring theme in Nolan’s work: crime and punishment. Each of his films has, in one way or another, involved crime or criminals and usually at least one “detective” character (whether literally or metaphorically) who is trying to right the wrongs. In Following, the Young Man falls in with a petty thief named Cobb (Alex Haw) who teaches him the tricks of the trade. In Memento, the film that launched Nolan’s career and re-energized indie filmmakers, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pierce) is desperately trying to track down the man who killed his wife. The problem is, Leonard has a “condition” (as he calls it) whereby he can no longer create short term memories; he forgets everything that has just happened after only a couple of minutes. To combat this, Leonard has devised a system to keep the clues from ever being erased from his mind: strategically placed tattoos of each piece of information that cover the majority of his torso.
While Leonard was an actual investigator (of insurance fraud) in his previous life, he is now the only one who cares about seeking justice (or vengeance) for his wife’s murder. To give the audience some sense of the constant frustration Leonard must feel, Nolan organizes the script (based on the short story “Memento Mori” by his brother, Jonathan Nolan) into two parallel timelines that eventually converge. While the film is typically described as being “told backward,” this isn’t entirely accurate. In fact, what Nolan accomplished was much more intricate and difficult. While one of the two story lines (shot in black and white) progresses chronologically, the other sequence (shot in full color) is arranged in reverse order. Eventually the two story lines merge at the film’s climax in one of the greatest “Aha!” moments in cinema.
With the doors of Hollywood wide open to him, Nolan made a huge leap with his next film, Insomnia (2002), both in terms of budget and star power. A remake of a Norwegian film by the same name, the film starred Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. It also re-united Nolan with director of photography Wally Pfister, a partnership that would carry through every Nolan film since. It can be argued that Insomnia was a critical and box office disappointment for Nolan despite earning decent reviews and grossing $67 million domestically. Regardless, it was a very taut psychological thriller that once again demonstrated Nolan’s talent for infusing noir elements in unexpected ways. It also proved that he has an extremely brilliant eye for composition and imagery.
While some filmmakers may have chosen a safer or more comfortable project for their fourth film, Nolan instead chose to tackle a new take on the Batman mythology with Batman Begins (2005). What sets Nolan’s film apart from every other comic book adaptation before it (and since) is his dedication to grounding a fantastical story in reality and by making Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) a human as flawed and imperfect as the rest of us. Batman Begins was met with wonderful reviews from critics and fans alike, thanks to Bale’s incredible performance as the caped crusader and a wonderful script written by Nolan and David S. Goyer. Once again dealing with themes like crime and punishment, guilt and redemption, Batman Begins was not only an amazing comic book adaptation but a fantastic piece of filmmaking in its own right.
Stay tuned for Christopher Nolan: A Cinematic Retrospective Part Two where Nolan pulls a rabbit out of a hat and sets a Joker loose on Gotham.